By Joanna Bastian

One week remains in breast cancer awareness month. The national discussion should be focused on cancer screenings for everyone, not just breast cancer. One in seven men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetimes. One in eight women will develop breast cancer. Of the two most common cancers, 90 percent of people who receive the diagnosis have no family history of the disease.

Consider this column a gentle reminder to schedule an annual physical and talk with your doctor to decide when to start testing, and how often. Write down the family history of cancer before you go. If there is a history of prostate cancer in males, there is a higher risk of breast cancer in the female members of the family and vice versa.

I found a lump when I was in my early 30s. After a mammogram followed by an ultrasound, the lump was determined to be a benign cyst. The mammogram provided a baseline for comparison in later years. Whether you feel a lump or not, ask your doctor to schedule a baseline mammogram if you’ve never had one before. For prostate cancer, a simple blood test can catch the disease early.

Rebecca Meadows had her mammogram earlier this summer, finding an early diagnosis of breast cancer. After a full mastectomy, further treatments — such as chemotherapy and radiation — were not required. She feels very lucky. “The first thing I ask when I see a friend is, ‘when was your last mammogram?’”

The initial diagnosis, for Rebecca, felt like “a whirlwind, a hurricane.” Things moved so quickly after the mammogram that she did not have time to think about the big picture or long term. During the midst of it all, someone who has just been diagnosed is often able to only focus on the immediate and overwhelming tasks at hand. Rebecca suggests, “take a friend with you to all your appointments, so they can help remember what is being said, and what needs to be asked.”

For friends, always offer to take someone to an appointment and sit in the room with them.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Rebecca suggested. She held up typewritten pages she had just used the day before at a follow-up exam. “Do your homework, write it all down,” she suggested. “The American Cancer Society has a list of questions you can take with you to the doctor. Doing your homework makes it less scary!” Rebecca has offered to be a resource to anyone who has questions.

Most often, a cancer diagnosis can be treated. But in some instances, people receive a timeline of life expectancy. What to do then? I can’t tell you what it is like for everyone, but I can share with you my mother’s experience. She was given initially two months to live. My uncle gave me sage advice: “Your role is to help her through this. Let her know that it’s OK if she goes.” For adult kids, spouses, friends — I can tell you that person is more worried about you than about dying. Let them know you are OK, and keep the focus on enjoying the time you have together.

One of the last conversations I had with my mom was what she had learned. Her diagnosis, she said, was a gift that gave her time and space to just be.

Take the initiative to talk with your doctor about your own cancer screenings. The more you know, the more prepared you can be for when and if you ever receive a diagnosis. Cancer screenings are not scary, they are simply a fact of life for us all.



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