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An hour that can save a life

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Andy Brosig/News-Sun

There are 8,760 hours in a normal year. Is just one of those hour worth your life?

That’s the question Christina Daniels, medical imaging manager at Covenant Health Hobbs Hospital, asks women every day. If the answer is yes, she recommends regular mammogram screenings for breast cancer.

And it’s a question Suzanne Holler has been asking herself for years. She’s been a patient of Daniels’ for years, Holler said, getting screened every year like clockwork.

“I’m very proactive with my health,” Holler said. “I’d rather get something found and fixed then … not hear if I’d come in five years ago.”

Mammography has improved over the years, Daniels said.

Her department has the latest technology for early detection of breast cancer, when it’s the most treatable, in its approximately one-year-old digital tomosynthesis imager, sometimes called three-dimensional mammography, she said.

Tomosynthesis “allows us to take images of multiple layers of the breast,” Daniels said. The x-ray tube moves around the breast, capturing 11 “slices” over an about seven second period, according to the website, breastcancer.org.

Those images are then combined by a computer to “produce clear, highly focused three-dimensional images throughout the breast,” the website explained.

There are advantages to three-dimensional imaging, Daniels said. It’s more effective than standard two-dimensional imaging on individuals with dense breast tissue, for example. Average breast tissue is comprised primarily of fat, which is transparent to x-rays, allowing better imaging. But denser tissue can be opaque to the x-rays, making it difficult to see what’s going on inside, she said.

“Tomosynthesis slices through it so we can see micro-calcifications or a very small, beginning breast cancer we wouldn’t normally have seen” with two-dimensional imaging, Daniels said. “So we are seeing breast cancer detection earlier, which is great. And it’s being able to be removed with no radiation or chemotherapy treatment or anything like that needed.”

Holler started receiving routine mammograms in her 40s. She had a “scare” about 20 years ago. It turned out the lumps in her breasts were non-life-threatening fibroid tumors. But she became a proponent of regular screenings.

“I have a daughter who’s in her 40s now,” Holler said. “I insisted she do this and she is.

“It’s something, especially if people have insurance … it’s ridiculous not to do it.”

Some women are afraid of the procedure. Others who’ve had it told them it’s painful, for example, or said they “went in for my mammogram and I got breast cancer,” Daniels said.

“You won’t get breast cancer from your mammogram. You may receive a diagnosis of breast cancer. I think sometimes fear is probably the leading reason women don’t come for a mammogram.”

And the process is simple, Daniels said. Once they’ve made an appointment, a patient will go to the imaging department on the day they’re scheduled and check in. Following a brief general health screening questionnaire, they’ll meet the mammographer and have the procedure.

The entire process takes about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how busy the imaging department is on any given day, Daniels said. The part of the procedure women typically complains hurts, compressing the breast tissue between two glass plates for the actual image, takes less than two minutes total, she said.

“It’s two minutes out of your day, your week, your month that can absolutely save your life,” Daniels said. “It can even save you from the other interventions we put in place to treat breast cancer — the surgeries, radiation therapies, chemotherapy. Unfortunately it’s fear that keeps women from having mammograms.”

Different organizations have different recommendations on when women should start routine screening and how often they should have a mammogram done. The American Cancer Society, for example, recommends women age 40 to 44 have the option for an annual mammogram, while women 45 to 54 should receive annual screenings. At age 55 and older can switch to screening every other year.

Covenant Health follows similar recommendations from the American College or Radiology, stating routine exams should begin at age 40, Daniels said. Those who are at increased risk for breast cancer, including a family history of the disease, they can start routine screenings as young as age 35. But breast cancer can strike anyone, not just people later in life.

“We have detected breast cancer in people in their 20s and 30s,” Daniels said. “It’s rare, but it does happen.

“And we do mammograms for men. The statistics say that a man presenting with a lump (in his breast tissue) has a higher chance of it being breast cancer than a woman presenting with a lump. It’s not just a women’s health issue.”

Holler considers herself fortunate. She’s always had good health insurance which covered the cost of her annual mammograms. But their are options available for people who are uninsured or underinsured to receive regular screening services.

Some healthcare facilities offer free or low-cost mammogram services during October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And there are groups and organizations focused on women’s health that can help people find services.

“I think I’m a success story,” Holler said. “I’ve followed the protocol and stayed proactive. I will always get mammograms.”

Daniels, too, is proactive with her health, getting annual mammograms to ensure she stays healthy, she said.

Women, as caregivers in their families, sometimes put aside their own health over concerns for spouses, children or parents they’re caring for, Daniels said.

“But do it because there’s someone out there who loves you and because you have a family,” Daniels said. “That’s why I do it — I have an annual mammogram because I want to know if there’s something wrong. And I want the early detection. And I want that ability to make that decision in my healthcare to receive treatment early if I have to.

“Yes, it’s uncomfortable, or you might walk out of here and say it was painful. But the other reality of it is a hospital stay with an IV, with anesthesia, with the removal of your breast. Of the two, which do you think is the most painful?”

Andy Brosig’s email is reporter1@hobbsnews.com.

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