Deborah Moser remembers the moment quite clearly. Having just stepped in the shower after completing a rigorous bike ride, she gingerly stretched her left arm over her head – as she’d done countless times before to better enjoy the full force of the cool shower stream.
“This time, though, I felt a pulling sensation in my left breast. That got my attention,” she recalls, “and when I raised my arm again to see if I could replicate that sensation, I did.” Still standing in the shower, Moser initiated a quick breast self-exam – one that ended with the discovery of an unusual lump in her left breast.
That was one year ago – and it was the moment when the then-56-year-old registered nurse would embark on the same journey that more than 250,000 other women in the United States must take each year as they learn to grapple with a diagnosis of breast cancer.
For Moser, who works as an educator and stroke program coordinator for Northern Hospital of Surry County, her seven-month journey would require a bilateral mastectomy (the surgical removal of both breasts), followed by months of chemotherapy and then reconstructive surgery.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed among U.S. women (excluding skin cancers); and the second leading cause of cancer death among American women, after lung cancer. Non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic black women have higher breast cancer incidence and death rates than women of other race/ethnicities. Among women under the age of 50, incidence rates have slowly increased since the mid-1990s.
“Breast cancer is affecting a shocking number of younger women,” agrees Moser.
The good news is that breast cancer death rates have decreased rapidly from 1989 through 2015 – for a total decline of 39 percent. More precisely, 322,600 breast cancer deaths have been averted in American women through 2015, according to the American Cancer Society. As important, that decline in breast cancer mortality has been attributed to both improvements in treatment and early detection.
On a Mission
Today, Moser is cancer free and on a mission to help educate women about the importance of early detection through the combination of monthly breast self-exams and annual mammograms.
“Early detection is key,” she emphasizes, “because the earlier you can detect cancer, the less invasive the cancer will be – which, in turn, means less treatment that will have to be undertaken.”
In terms of breast self-awareness, the American Cancer Society notes that “all women should become familiar with both the appearance and feel of their breasts and report any changes promptly to their physicians.” Moser clarifies that caution: “Every woman needs to keep an eye on her breasts – and watch for any dimpling, any discharge from the nipple, any textural changes or discoloration, or any indentation or heaviness in the breast that wasn’t there previously.”
For women of average risk of developing breast cancer, the American Cancer Society offers the following age-related recommendations for mammograms: women 40 to 44 years of age should have the option of beginning annual mammography; those 45 to 54 should undergo annual mammograms; and those 55 and older should continue with an annual test or transition to a biennial mammogram. (A mammogram – a low-dose x-ray procedure that provides a detailed image of the internal structure of the breast – takes only a few minutes and is performed on an outpatient basis.)
“I’m now doing great,” says Moser. “I was tickled when my chemo doctor – who made me vow and promise to be in his office every three months — told me at my last appointment that I was doing so well he didn’t need to see me for another six months.
“After you go through something like this, the gift that you take away is to use your personal experience to help others,” she adds. “I’m pretty passionate now about educating women to help save their lives by proactively performing breast self-exams and getting an annual mammogram.”
Breast Cancer Awareness
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month – which serves as a timely reminder to women to schedule a mammogram. Northern Hospital of Surry County offers digital screening mammography services five days a week without a doctor’s order.