Meet Marilyn. Becoming educated about the risks of dense breasts led to her being proactive and to her earlier diagnosis.

Although it’s never a diagnosis one wants to hear, for me, while it seriously concerned me, was not devastating as the cancer was caught early. I have Jennie Dale and a friend Beverly to thank for it being caught early.

I am generally very conscientious about my health. I eat well, I exercise, I live a balanced life. I visit the doctor for my annual paps, and I follow up when something is not right.

My mammograms were every two years, following BC Cancer’s screening program policies. I have no family history of breast cancer that I know about. Most of our family perished in the Holocaust before the age of 50 so I had little to go on.

In November 2021, I had my annual pap with my doctor and asked if I could have a breast ultrasound. I had heard from my friend Beverly, who is cousins with Jennie Dale, that if you have dense breasts, it can be hard to see a tumour on a mammogram. My doctor didn’t think an ultrasound was called for and so I let it go. But the following February, I heard about a friend’s breast cancer and decided to pursue the ultrasound. My doctor gave me the referral.

I was told that I might have the results in a few days. I went away the following week for two weeks and forgot about the whole thing. A week after I came back, I called to see why I hadn’t been called with results. The doctor hadn’t yet received a report either. The person who answered the phone said that it probably means there is no reason to worry. But that wasn’t the case. The following week I was called by a receptionist saying that I needed to have a biopsy and another mammogram. The biopsy was going to be a month later. I pushed for an earlier. date and they said I would be on a wait list but my doctor was able to push it up for me. My doctor called me with the cancer diagnosis less than one week later. She felt sorry to tell me the news over the phone but wanted my go-ahead to book an appointment as soon as possible with the surgeon.

My diagnosis was stage 1 breast cancer, progesterone and estrogen positive. I had it in my mind that I would ask for a mastectomy and possibly a double if that is what they recommended. My daughter very much wanted me to have a mastectomy as well. I wanted the best possible outcome and I thought that would be the way to go.

The surgeon was great. She recommended against mastectomy. She said that with radiation, the outcomes are the same. I read online all kinds of articles. I talked to many people. I spoke with my regular doctor. I was still leaning toward a mastectomy. But then I called the surgeon just to talk a little more about my particular situation and she said while she could do a mastectomy, she still recommended a partial. The date and time I got for the surgery didn’t allow enough time for a full mastectomy. She didn’t feel comfortable waiting the additional month I would have to wait for a full mastectomy, so we decided to go ahead with the partial and re-evaluate afterward.

The surgery went very smoothly. The recovery went well too. I did help myself with the healing. I started doing the exercises two weeks before the surgery so I would have them well in my brain and it would be mindless to go through them. I was very diligent about doing all the arm exercises 3-5 times a day as recommended. I had been having a lot of shoulder trouble with the shoulder on the other side and those exercises fixed that shoulder up too!

All of the above doesn’t address how I dealt with the cancer diagnosis on an emotional level. I prepared myself for the diagnosis slowly. When I was called back for the biopsy, the radiologist said that if you get a call back, it means there could be a problem. So, I tried to prepare myself. When I got the call from my doctor that I did have cancer, I had two friends over, both of whom had had cancer. I was in good company. My husband had also had a tumour in one of his kidneys five years earlier. One friend said to me upon leaving: It will be okay. And that meant a lot to me. I decided it would be okay.

I grew up in a very positive household in spite of the fact that both my parents lost mostly all of their loved ones. My mother said every day was a gift. My father was a very happy and grateful man. I thought that if they could live through what they endured, I could survive stage one breast cancer in one of the best countries in the world, surrounded by family and friends.

Despite this, day to day can be hard if you let your mind be consumed with waiting for appointments or phone calls from doctors. I had been thinking about writing a book for our children and grandchildren about my family history. I had started little bits here and there and collected stories from the sole living survivor of that generation, my mother’s brother. Now was the time to put my mind to it. And I did. The book kept me busy for weeks. First the writing and then collating pictures. It gave me courage and strength. What that generation endured is unimaginable. I felt that I am of the same stock – a survivor.

I saw the bright side – it was caught early and all should be well. I wasn’t the only one. The system would take care of me and it did, once I was diagnosed. That is not to say that after my radiation I didn’t have times when the cancer diagnosis hit me a little harder. It’s a process with many different stages. The most important thing is early diagnosis.

We are entitled to an ultrasound if we have dense breasts. Since my diagnosis I have been encouraging others to stay on top of their own health. I had a very close call. Who knows how much time could have passed before my cancer was found? Would the next mammogram have found the tumour? I know how lucky I am.