In September 2019, Vickie Hamilton had her yearly mammogram at Iredell Health System’s Women’s Health Center. Knowing that the breast x-ray detects cancers too small for an individual to simply feel, she has always been diligent to follow recommendations to have an annual mammogram starting at age 40.
Hamilton had always heard that breast cancer was hereditary and stemmed from the mother’s side, and since that didn’t apply to her, she never considered herself at risk.
Then she was notified of her test results, and everything changed. The Radiologist who reviewed her results had seen something suspicious, and additional images were needed. It was soon after that she learned she had cancer.
“I thought, ‘Maybe it’s nothing.’ But then you begin to think, ‘Gosh, they’re kind of serious about this.’ Your mind naturally asks ‘How bad is it?’ and ‘How sick am I going to be?’ I had a lot of thoughts down the road,” she said.
While she tried to avoid becoming too engulfed in her emotions, she wondered how long any type of treatment would take and whether she would need chemotherapy.
“When you’re suspecting something, you go home and lay down thinking, ‘What does this mean? Am I going to be living in five years? Or, am I going to be living for another 10 or 20?’ Because at that point, you don’t know how advanced it could be or what you might be facing,” she said.
After the additional imaging showed her lymph nodes were clear of any cancer spreading, Hamilton met with a surgeon and underwent a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous tissue at the end of October 2019, just a month after her initial mammogram. She now undergoes radiation therapy to prevent tumor recurrence, sees an oncologist, and takes medicine to help prevent cancer cells from growing.
“I have been treated really well,” she said, speaking of her experiences with Iredell’s Women’s Health Center, Iredell Health System’s Imaging Services department and the J. Allen Knox Radiation Therapy Center, also a part of Iredell Health System. “Everybody was really nice and treated me as gently as they could. I’ve had a great experience.”
Among women, breast cancer is the most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death, exceeded only by lung cancer. Mammograms — along with monthly self-exams and yearly physician exams — are the best ways to find breast cancer. Mammograms consistently detect breast cancer at the earliest stages possible. The use of a 3-D mammogram — the type of exam that Hamilton had — provides exceptional image quality, removing clutter and allowing for multiple pictures from various angles, while using a lower dose of radiation. It’s especially useful for women with dense breast tissue. Hamilton credits her 3-D mammogram for helping to detect her breast cancer early, adding that it gave her peace of mind due to its clarity and accuracy.
Despite reassurances from her medical providers, Hamilton knows her cancer can return. And though her oncologist believes she is in good shape and will remain healthy, she does not know what the future will hold.
“Every now and then, you get that thought in your mind, ‘Will it someday be back?’ But I don’t think about that often,” she said. “I feel like I’ll be around for a while.”
Hamilton encourages all women age 40 and older to have an annual mammogram, including her own daughter. She is grateful she continued to have her mammograms, and recognizes her diligence in having the yearly test may have saved her life.
“Had I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just skip it this year,’ by the time I went in a year later, I would have been in a far different place,” she said.
The cause of breast cancer is unknown, but if it is detected early before it spreads, 98 percent of women will be alive five years later.
To schedule an appointment for a mammogram, call the Iredell Women’s Health Center at 704-878-4551.