Every October, hundreds of requests come to The Rose wanting us to bring educational programs about breast cancer into companies, churches and schools.
As I prepare another power point presentation for breast cancer awareness month, I’m struck by the methodology of creating these programs. I learned how to do public education from the best. After watching Dr. Melillo do about a thousand presentations, I had the hang of it. She used to combined medical facts with a lot of common sense--a recipe that worked.
So my slides are split, about half technical and half informational, sprinkled with little inspirational segments about the great work done at The Rose.
I call these talks: ‘Mammograms 101.’ I flip through the slides; some show normal ‘fatty replaced’ breast tissue compared to dense tissue and others demonstrate the look of a mammogram done on young women or men. I show images of cancers that are hidden behind dense breast tissue--those look like big blobs of white on the screen and other images of small cancers with long tentacles reaching throughout the breast—those are the dangerous ones.
Do I really think women will benefit from understanding more about the anatomy of the breast, or why the density of breast tissue makes a difference? Do they need to know that like most medical tests, mammogram results aren’t always 100% right or that having annual mammograms doesn’t prevent breast cancer?
I sure hope so, because the parts most medical folks don’t tell women are the parts that kill them.
Of course, I could just tell them that having an annual mammogram is something they ‘should do.’
But aren’t we all a little tired of hearing about the things we should do? Exercise? Sure we all know we need to exercise daily but a whole bunch of my friends do good to get through another 14 to 16 hour day of work, picking up and depositing kids or aging parents, and handling the home-life stuff in between. Hammering any of them about exercise seems somehow cruel.
We hear a lot about work life balance and it makes sense. Yet managing to find a few minutes of personal time on most days seems impossible. Eating healthy? Another one of those ‘should do’s.’ And we try, for a while, sometimes for a very long while, sometimes only until another long day means we never got to the grocery store.
Sure we feel better when we exercise, take the time off or drop the pounds. But I don’t want my talks to be about should do’s. We have enough of those in life.
What I hope I bring is a little bit of understanding about why mammograms work and more importantly when they don’t. I also hope I convey that no one, no doctor or anyone else, can possibly know their bodies as well as they do…or could…if they do their own self-examination regularly.
The stories I tell of women insisting that something was wrong in their breast, even if nothing showed up on a mammogram, are real. Those women knew their bodies, but more importantly they trusted their own intuition. And, when that little voice in their head said something’s ‘not right’ or they felt something that wasn’t there before, they didn’t ignore it. They were absolutely clear that it’s their body and at the end of life, no one else is going to raise their hand and say ‘take me.’ They know that they have every right and reason to insist on more evaluation or to get a second opinion.
When I finish my talks, I want women to feel they have learned enough to challenge ‘pat’ answers and if they ever do have a problem they will know what questions to ask of their physician or their mammography provider.
We tell women: Don’t be afraid of finding breast cancer. Be afraid of finding it too late.
After almost every presentation at least one woman will approach me with a personal question. Something in her voice, or the way she avoids my eyes, tells me she needs to be checked out. Maybe she has 'watched' that lump grow, or there's a strange change in her breast which sounds like the cancer has started edging out through her skin or that discharge she speaks of has gone on way too long. Whatever, that woman standing in front of me knows she has a problem.
That’s the hardest part of any talk. I only have a moment in time to find the right words, to say the right thing, to let her know I really heard what she was trying to say. Only a moment to tell her I can't diagnose anything but I know in my heart she needs to get checked. A moment to determine if she's needing help because she doesn't have insurance.
The moment ends, and she is gone, lost back to the crowd.
I hope my answer encouraged her and I pray that it’s not too late.