Northwest Herald

Oliver: New guidelines for mammograms should be reminder to go get screened

Perhaps I can be forgiven for being the person who reminds every woman I know to get a mammogram. After all, last week I had my second surgery since late March for my second bout with breast cancer.

The U.S. Preventative Task Force just came out with new guidelines for when women of average risk should begin getting mammograms. Their recommendation of starting at age 40 is consistent with other groups, such as the American Cancer Society.

Sadly, there isn’t consistency in how often a woman should be screened. Some groups say screenings should be yearly; this new guidance says every other year.

These recommendations, however, do not apply to those of us who are at higher risk for breast cancer. Women with higher risk have a family history of breast cancer, have dense breasts or have a genetic mutation. The American College of Radiology recommends that all women be evaluated by a doctor to determine if they are at a higher risk no later than age 25.

I used to be one of those women who saw breast cancer as something that happened to other people. None of this was in my family history, so I thought I’d be fine. That I also had a fear of going to doctors probably didn’t help in finally starting to schedule my mammograms. Also, I really didn’t understand that I had dense breasts.

However, I did get my first mammogram when I was 43. Better late than never, I told myself. Happily, it was uneventful. I had another a couple of years later, which would have been consistent with these new guidelines. It, too, was uneventful.

Then, I let a few years lapse in between. Life happened, as it does for so many people. It’s easy, particularly for a caregiver, to put oneself behind everyone else. I was caring for my mother with dementia, and then my husband was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. I was forever taking my mother to doctor’s appointments, so it was easy to put off my own screening.

The problem with that strategy, however, is that cancer doesn’t care if you’re too busy to deal with it. Cancer doesn’t care if you have other responsibilities that seem more important.

When I next got around to having a mammogram, in 2019, I had to go straight to a diagnostic mammogram because I had developed a lump on my right breast. I still wonder if the path would have been different had I been more regular in getting my mammograms.

As it is, I am extremely grateful that I now get a mammogram every year. Then again, they’re not optional for me anymore.

Had I not gone in for my yearly screening in February, there’s no telling how much bigger the new cancer would have gotten in my left breast. It’s a different type of cancer, one that does not respond to the cancer-preventing drugs I’ve been taking for the past five years and one that is more aggressive.

In a few weeks, I’ll be going through radiation treatments on the left side, just like I already did in 2019 on the right side. It’s not something that I ever expected to be doing. In my mind, I had a few more months to go before I was going to be declared cancer-free and I’d go on with my life.

However, cancer had other plans. So, I’ll be shifting my own plans to make sure that I do all I can to battle it again.

Still, too many women I know don’t make the time to be screened, believing that cancer couldn’t possibly happen to them. Maybe it’s out of a sense of fear that something might be found. I get that; I’ve been there.

I just know from experience that it’s better to find things when they are teeny-tiny than to have to deal with tumors and the potential that the cancer has spread throughout the body. Then things get really scary.

Know if you have any risk factors. Talk to your doctor about getting your mammograms.

Then just do it. It really could save your life.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.