Before she joined the Ontario Breast Screening Program (OBSP), Cambridge native Margot McAuliffe couldn’t remember the last time she’d thought about having a mammogram.
“I think I was in denial,” she explained. “I didn’t have a family history of breast cancer, and I didn’t feel a lump in my breast, so I didn’t think I had anything to worry about.”
In 2005, McAuliffe learned about the OBSP through an awareness campaign at Grand River Hospital where she works. With a group of colleagues, she made an appointment for a mammogram through the program.
Just a few weeks later, she got a call from her doctor’s office.
“I knew something was up,” she said.
At the age of 52, McAuliffe was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Nearly five years later — after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy — she’s cancer-free.
“The OBSP saved my life. They really did. If I hadn’t gone for a mammogram then, I don’t know when I would have bothered going or what stage the cancer would have been at when it was finally found.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the OBSP is offering high-quality mammography which meets Canadian standards for the early detection of small invasive cancers. In Ontario in 2010, an estimated 8,900 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 2,100 women will die from the disease, according to the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS). The good news is that thanks in part to the early detection of breast cancer, more women are surviving than ever before. Since 1986, the breast cancer death rate has fallen by more than 30 per cent.
“Screening really does save lives,” said Region of Waterloo Public Health nurse Donna Nicholson. “Self exams are extremely important, but a mammogram can help to find the problem sooner.”
Mammograms are the gold standard for breast screening. They are a low dose X-ray that can detect changes in the breast, even when the changes are too small for you or your doctor to feel or see. According to the CCS, women aged 50 and older should have a screening mammogram, generally every two years.
And just by taking a quick look at the numbers we can see that it works. Since 1995, more than 139,000 mammograms have been performed on 51,111 women and 642 cancers have been detected. With eight OBSP sites located in the Waterloo Wellington region and a Breast Assessment Program at the Waterloo Wellington Breast Centre, accessibility has increased substantially in our region. More than 23,500 women were screened at OBSP in 2009 in Waterloo-Wellington alone and data shows that breast cancer death rates in Ontario women age 50-69 decreased by 35 per cent between 1990 and 2007.
Ontario women who are 50 years of age and older, with no acute breast symptoms, no personal history of breast cancer, no breast implants and have not had a mammogram in the past 12 months are eligible to participate in the OBSP.
“It’s extremely easy to get a screening done,” said Nicholson. “You don’t need a referral from a doctor; you can just call up and make an appointment. Getting the word out about the screening is the first step towards early detection.”
The Canadian Cancer Society’s ‘Thingamaboob’ is a great way to get the conversation started about the importance of regular mammograms, notes Elmira resident Sarah Bradshaw, a breast cancer survivor. The pink tool which can be carried as a keychain shows women hands-on the various sized lumps that can be detected through regular mammograms, a first mammogram, a physical exam by a healthcare professional and checking your breasts. Regular mammography finds the smallest lump — about the size of an apple seed — while the average size lump found by women checking their breasts is the approximate size of a cherry tomato.
“Talking about breast cancer may not be a topic that everyone feels comfortable discussing,” said Bradshaw.
“The Thingamaboob is a great tool because it can help you ‘break the ice’ and get the conversation started with the special women in your life by visually showing them that regular mammograms can find the smallest lump and detect cancer the earliest, which means there is a better chance of treating the cancer successfully.”
To make an appointment for a screening, call the OBSP screening location that is closest to you to make an appointment (a referral is not needed). OBSP sites in the Waterloo-Wellington region are located in Cambridge, Fergus, Guelph and Kitchener. To find an OBSP, call 1-800-668-9304 or visit www.cancercare.on.ca/obsplocations.