Cancer Stories

Breast cancer survivor’s warning to women: ‘One mammogram can save your life’

Jane, 52, went to the doctor with hot flushes but further tests revealed something much more serious.

In Jane’s own words:

‘At my current age of 52, I went in for an annual pap-smear. I told my GP that I was tired and explained that I’d been waking up from hot flashes. She recommended low-dose estrogen- but not before she instructed me to get a mammogram. Being a good patient, I listened and very promptly got tested. However, after a mere ten-minute session, my life would change drastically.

‘A week following, I was told to go to Randwick Hospital because they had found 3 miniscule white dots on my mammogram. Despite this unsettling news, I was assured that 1 in 20 women ever have a problem, so there was no need to worry. The doctors explained that the dots could simply be the result of wear and tear. Being fit and healthy all my life, I was confident that this was the correct assumption.

‘Because I didn’t have enough breast tissue for a needle biopsy, I had to go in for a full biopsy surgery. I was told there was a four-day waiting period for the results, but on day three, I received a heart-shattering call. My surgeon confirmed that I had tested positive.

‘As if this news hadn’t thrown me for enough of a loop, she then added that there was one spot the next day for an immediate surgery. I took a few deep breaths, called my husband, and we decided to go for it.

‘After the surgery, I waited two and a half agonizing weeks for the results. Unfortunately, the results weren’t ideal and the doctors couldn’t find a clear margin. The next step involved me deciding to go through with a double mastectomy. The final trial of my journey was ultimately one more call from my surgeon, saying that she needed to remove any remaining breast cells from my body.

‘From all these experiences, I realised how important it is to know about breast density and the linked effects it can have on detecting breast cancer. My pathology results confirmed that I had dense breasts, something I had never heard of. Had I known this sooner and actually understood what it meant, I would have been getting checked more regularly. I’ve learned that breast cancer is random and anyone can be diagnosed. Although I ate healthily, drank rarely, and exercised frequently, I was not automatically immune- and my density put me at a higher risk. For women who are unsure of their density, I advise you to ask at your next check-up. And for women who aren’t receiving normal check-ups, I hope you realise that one mammogram can save your life.”

Breast density: The facts

What is breast density?

According to Be Dense Aware, a person who has dense breasts (as shown on a mammogram) has less fatty tissue, and more glandular and fibrous tissue in their breasts. Women with dense breasts have a four to five increased risk of developing breast cancer, so it is important to be aware of the associated risks.

Why is it important to know breast density?

Breast density can only be detected by a mammogram, not by the way your breasts look or feel. Professor Rickard advises: ‘Always check your mammographic density because a high density puts you at greater risk of developing cancer and makes it more likely that a cancer, if present, will not be seen on a mammogram.’

What age should women start checking their breasts?

The age that women need to check their breasts is determined by family history of breast or ovarian cancer. According to Radiologist Professor Mary Rickard, ‘If you do not have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer and have not had a significant breast problem then you should have a mammogram check at age 40 years. 

She adds: ‘If you have an increased risk then you need to start regular clinical and imaging checks at a younger age, and you should discuss this with your doctor.’

How regularly should women check their breasts?

Professor Rickard suggests women check the feel of their breasts every month but advises to consult your doctor about a screening routine. Pink Hope’s Know Your Risk is an online questionnaire that helps you determine your risk of developing breast cancer, and will provide you with key information about breast health.