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Cancer survivor stresses importance of checkups

Lynne Oliver almost skipped her mammogram the year doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer. At age 50, she'd been having them annually for 10 years.

Fortunately for Oliver, she decided to undergo the yearly screening. Doctors found stage one invasive ductal carcinoma in one of Oliver's breasts. Because the cancer turned out to be a high grade, fast-growing one, she chose

to have a mastectomy and chemotherapy.

Oliver, a pharmacist at Rockdale Medical Center, said she can't stress to women enough the importance of regular mammograms.

"At the time, I was considering going every two years, but if I'd waited another whole year, it would have been a different story," said Oliver, whose parents both died of cancer.

Though breast cancer deaths have dropped since 1990, according to the American Cancer Society, the disease is still the second leading cause of cancer death in women after lung cancer. During October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month campaign, health professionals urge women over the age of 40 to undergo yearly mammograms. Early detection is the key to beating the disease.

"What I have seen is women who get their routine mammograms done annually, when we do see something, we catch it really early before they can even feel it, and their survival rate is really high as opposed to ladies who don't come annually who have a problem. The treatment often has to be a lot more extensive," said Lisa McWilliams, manager of the Newton Medical Center Women's Diagnostic Center.

Both Rockdale Medical Center and Newton Medical Center boast digital mammography machines, which, according to the ACS, can provide more accurate results for women under 50 and those with dense breast tissue.

McWillams said one major reason why women don't get screened regularly is financial difficulties. People lose health insurance and one of the areas they cut back is preventative health care, like mammographies, she said.

But, McWilliams emphasized, local health departments do have programs for qualifying individuals which offer free or discounted mammographies. Newton Medical Center also offers a discount coupon for the months of October and November for those paying out-of-pocket for mammograms, she said.

McWilliams has been involved in the field of mammography for almost 20 years.

"I think we are seeing more women doing preventative mammography. A lot of physicians emphasize it during annual check-ups and insurances are covering it more over a span of time," said McWilliams, who added that she visits local groups, like churches, to talk about breast cancer.

McWilliams recommended people get involved with breast cancer fundraisers or awareness campaigns to educate the public about the disease and preventative measures they can take.

"It makes a big difference," she said.

Another reason why women put off having the screenings performed is because they believe it will be painful, according to both McWilliams and Sandra Helms, the lead technologist in the Womens' Diagnostic Center at Rockdale Medical Center.

Both health professionals said that patients' fears are allayed after they've actually had a screening.

"Ninety-eight percent of the time after I finish the mammography they'll say, 'That wasn't as bad as I expected it to be,'" said Helms, who recommends that women always keep copies of the films, should they change caregivers.

Helms said she believes the fear of a diagnosis of cancer is a major reason that keeps women from coming in for their annual mammograms. Still, regular mammograms can make a major difference in tracking changes in the breast over time. Even though women who are post-menopausal are at higher risk of breast cancer, said Helms, women at any age can develop the disease.

"What everyone needs to realize is that breast cancer is not choosy," Helms said. "It's a devastating disease to women and their families."

Now a two-year cancer survivor, Oliver said she's prayed about her disease and has become at peace with the fact that God is in control.

"It was more of a wake-up call for me since it was caught early," Oliver said. "God put me on this earth for a purpose and it gave me a chance to examine my life and see if I was living like God wanted me to live and to look at my life and make changes so that I won't have any regrets, because I don't know that when I go to the doctor in three months if he's going to say 'Your cancer has metastasized,' so that's always before you," Oliver said.

Contact Karen J. Rohr at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.

SideBar: Tips for prevention

· Decrease your daily fat intake; eat leaner meats and limit red meats.

· Increase fiber in your diet by eating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

· Limit alcohol intake; cancer risk increases with two or more drinks a day.

· Stay active by exercising most days of the week; a 30-minute walk is sufficient daily exercise.

· Don't smoke because it causes cancer in other parts of the body which can spread to the breast.

*Source: National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Web site, www.nbcam.org.