Breast cancer battle makes woman believe in mammograms

July 14, 2004|EMILY TOADVINE

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago, Alice Davis does not hesitate to have regular mammograms.

"Now my mammograms are one year and one day apart. I don't fool around with that," she says.

She encourages her friends to do likewise.

"I'm sort of a crusader for this. I urge all my friends to have a mammogram. Any of my friends over 40, I ask, 'Have you had a baseline mammogram? Do you exam your breasts?'"

Davis, 52, admits that before she discovered a lump in her breast, she needed a little prodding to have a mammogram. She had gone to her gynecologist for her annual checkup. Her doctor asked if she had a mammogram. Davis was ready to postpone it even though it had been 18 months.

"I said, 'I'll get to it,' and she said, 'No, you'll do it right now.'"

She credits her doctor, Magdalene Karon, and her radiologist, Lori Atkins, with saving her life. After seeing the mammogram, they saw something suspicious and followed up with an ultrasound.


Davis' cancer was unusual in its location.

"It was a lump against my ribs and under my left breast," she says. "It was the size of a pencil eraser."

Breast cancer normally occurs in the upper quadrants of the breasts instead of the underside.

The surgeon who removed it, Jack Cody, was amazed that her doctor found it.

"He whistled after he saw it. He said, 'That woman saved your life. I never would have found this.'"

If not caught, the cancer likely would have spread, Davis says. She describes it as the kind that grew fast.

After having a lumpectomy, she had 17 out of her 19 lymph nodes removed on her left side. They were checked for cancer and found to be negative. Because of the removal of the lymph nodes, she still experiences some swelling in her left hand.

She underwent six months of chemotherapy and seven and a half weeks of radiation. For five years, she also took an anti-cancer drug for women who had estrogen positive cancer.

In addition to mammograms in the spring and fall, Davis performs self-exams every month. She says she was embarassed when her doctor asked her to show him how she did an exam.

"He said, 'They're yours.' He wanted me to be able to feel if there was a change in breast tissue, particularly along where the scar is because it's lumpy."

Because of her experience, Davis says many people turn to her when facing breast cancer.

"People seek me out now if they have friends or a sister. I have sort of a little counseling sideline."

Davis advises them to learn as much as possible.

"I tell them they need to find out what they're facing and ask questions, take as much control of your body as you can."

For many women, learning they have cancer is overwhelming. "I think the worst thing about cancer is a loss of control. There are cells growing that you didn't know you had."

Even seven years later, Davis still is working on regaining control. "It's why I workout and why I went on Weight Watchers," she says. "I had lost control of my weight. You feel sorry for yourself and people made me chocolate chip cookies to make me feel better."

Davis recently joined a workout program at McDowell Wellness Center. She works out twice a week with weight machines.

"Once I learn the routine, I'll try to do that twice or three times a week," says Davis, who also gets in a mile while walking the dog two or three times a week.

Because of her experience, Davis is not lax in other areas of preventative healthcare. She did postpone her first colonscopy until age 52 instead of age 50.

"They found two polyps and removed them," she says.

After having a bone density test, she discovered she had developed osteoporsis in the hips because of chemotherapy and the anti-cancer drug. She has the bone density test repeated every two years and takes a bone-building medicine. "My doctor said, 'It's easier to grow bone in your 50s than in your 70s and 80s," Davis says.

Another significant change Davis made was to stop smoking 10 years ago. She had been smoking since age 16 and went through about a pack a day.

"I started having some chest pains and I said, 'Enough of this.'"

As for why some women avoid having tests that could save their lives, Davis speculates that fear plays a role.

"People are afraid of what they might find," she says.

Even if women shy away from a mammogram, they still can do self-exams. "Self breast exams are free and the American Cancer Society has a great chart for how to do it," she says, noting that women should not only feel for lumps, but look for discoloration, roughness or a rash.

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