‘You have to follow your instincts,’ cancer survivor advises | SteamboatToday.com

‘You have to follow your instincts,’ cancer survivor advises

Screening ultrasound found breast cancer earlier

Breast cancer survivor Catherine DeLong at her home in Silver Spur.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

If anything could be considered the best part of being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, for Routt County resident Catherine DeLong, that best thing is that her four sisters are now on track receiving mammogram screenings.

Skipping mammograms when life gets very busy is part of the story of DeLong’s life-changing battle with breast cancer that began with an official diagnosis in July 2020. DeLong had spent a lot of time the previous few years “coming and going,” helping distant family members with serious health concerns and a relocation. So, she had skipped her regular mammogram appointments in 2017 and 2018, something she urges other women not to neglect, but she got back on track with regular mammograms in 2019.

When DeLong noticed some unusual swelling under her right armpit in spring 2020, that fortuitous — in retrospect — body change sent her to family physician Dr. Laura Mordi in Steamboat Springs to check on multiple health issues.

“You have to follow your instincts, and I deeply felt that something was wrong,” said DeLong, 61. “I was really concerned about the swelling in my armpit.”

Although medical team members eventually did not determine the lump itself was cancerous, the swelling did alert DeLong that she needed to get back on track to focus on her own health care. DeLong scheduled another appointment that Mordi advised, a mammogram screening that took place in June 2020.

The mammogram screening seemed normal, but due to DeLong’s dense breast tissue, the team at UCHealth Gloria Gossard Breast Care Center ordered a screening ultrasound. Nearly half of all women age 40 and older who receive mammograms are found to have dense breasts, according to the National Cancer Institute.

An almond-sized cancerous lump was detected during DeLong’s screening ultrasound. Dr. Malaika Thompson, a board-certified and fellowship-trained breast radiologist at the local breast center, said the lump could not be felt by touch and was not detected on the mammogram. The follow-up screening ultrasound was critical to finding the cancerous mass.

Early detection is critical

“The more often you screen, the earlier we can find it and the easier it is to cure.” — Dr. Malaika Thompson, UCHealth board-certified breast radiologist

Thompson outlined the next steps DeLong underwent, including diagnostic ultrasound, biopsies and a breast MRI following cancer confirmation. DeLong had surgery in August 2020 for a single mastectomy, removal of two lymph nodes and the first step of breast reconstruction surgery all in one day at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. The tandem surgery was performed by a local general surgeon along with breast reconstruction surgeon Dr. Aaron Frye, who serves locally at YVMC as well as at UCHealth Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Clinic in Fort Collins.

The cancerous lump was caught early enough during the screening ultrasound so that DeLong did not need chemotherapy or radiation. The Routt County resident was glad to receive her cancer treatments and surgeries locally. DeLong said coordination of the team at UCHealth Jan Bishop Cancer Center made the process moving ahead for treatment easier.

DeLong now takes a pill daily that is an aromatase inhibitor approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat postmenopausal women diagnosed with hormone-receptor-positive, early-stage breast cancer after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.

The cancer survivor said her family history includes an aunt who died at age 37 from colon cancer. Early-in-life, hereditary cancer in close family members is a warning sign for close relatives to begin screenings earlier in life, Thompson said. The recommendation is for close family members to start mammograms 10 years prior to the earliest age of diagnosis of a close family member.

Thompson noted that 75% of new breast cancer cases have no strong family history of cancer, so that is why regular breast mammograms and possible follow-up ultrasound screenings are important.

“The more often you screen, the earlier we can find it, and the easier it is to cure,” Thompson said.

DeLong is stunned by the stark statistics of the high rate of breast cancer in America that affects 13% of American women. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second-most common form of cancer for women after skin cancer, and breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women after lung cancer. The chance that a woman will die from breast cancer is about 1 in 39, according to the American Cancer Society.

DeLong encourages women to put their health care first, no matter how busy women can be, which often includes helping take care of others.

“It’s very important for people to know that 1 in 8 women will get diagnosed with breast cancer,” DeLong said. “Because the odds are so great, women should never put off having a mammogram.

“I feel like I really got lucky,” DeLong said. “Had I not got back on a regular mammogram schedule, it could have been devastating. The outcome could have been a lot worse.”

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