I'm thankful for the mammogram that may have saved my life

Jan 2, 2016 at 5:00 p.m. ET
Image: The Freestone Railroad/Getty Images

We tell the jokes every year. What is the difference between a mammogram and having your breasts run over by a car? I can tell you the real difference. The mammogram can save your life.

I turned 55 this year. After having a mammogram, I was diagnosed with atypical lobular hyperplasia. This year, the American Cancer Society came out with guidelines that women shouldn’t have mammograms until they reach age 45, and then only go every two years once they hit 55 — unless you are high risk, meaning you have first degree relatives with breast cancer.They also mentioned that the mammogram didn't help 85 percent of those who succumbed to breast cancer. I know many women in their 30s and 40s with breast cancer who have no family history.

It is important to remember exactly what the mammogram does. It finds the microscopic evidence of precancerous cells, which wouldn’t necessarily show before it was too late to save a life. These indicators are called calcifications and hyperplasia.

Calcifications and hyperplasia can indicate a possibility of cancer. Not right now, but in the future. Biopsies are performed that show what is really happening.

It is important to remember that with lobular hyperplasia, there is only a 9 to 13 percent chance that you will get cancer. With the ductal hyperplasia, it is a lot higher.

Without the mammogram machine, no one would be able to tell that you have any form of hyperplasia. You do not feel it. It is not a lump. You wouldn’t have it removed. You wouldn’t know to have a doctor monitor you. You wouldn’t be put on an anti-cancer drug until it was very late. Yes, the majority of women will not develop cancer with hyperplasia, but what if you were one of those that did and you could have been saved the trauma associated with cancer simply by having the doctors perform these life-saving procedures?

So yes, while we complain about mammograms, there is that reality that mammograms can and will save your life. And no, simply because you are in your 40s doesn’t mean that it can’t happen to you. Yes, there are a lot of false positives when it comes to mammograms, but what if you are the one whose biopsy isn't benign? What if those bureaucrats had someone they loved whose life is saved by a mammogram in their 40s?

Luckily, some national breast cancer organizations said the decision to have mammograms should be between a patient and her doctor. Of course, it will eventually also be between the insurance company, the patient and the doctor. Should some expert decide mammograms are an unnecessary procedure, insurance companies will rewrite their guidelines and not pay for the procedure except in egregious cases.

Meanwhile, I turned 55 this year. I was just diagnosed with atypical labular hyperplasia. I had both types of biopsies. I also just had the effected areas removed from my breast. I will be followed more closely by my gynecologist, and I will meet with an oncologist. Remember, this diagnosis means I also have an increased risk of developing breast cancer — and not just in the breast with the hyperplasia.

My chances of becoming really ill have just gone down, since I will now have a group of doctors monitoring my health. Just think what would have happened if I had followed the American Cancer Society's recommendation and not had my mammogram for another two years. Yes, maybe I am one of the 15 percent whose life has been saved because of a mammogram, or maybe I wouldn't have developed breast cancer anyway. But who are these people making recommendations that take risks with my life?

The reality is that a mammogram is a necessary and much needed tool in women's health care. I think the real question that needs to be asked is whether the different outcomes in cancer treatment have something more to do with the accessibility of, and professionalism of the healthcare providers, and not the test itself. What we are still dealing with is ultimately the human quotient. No one is perfect. Yet, according to these experts, it is simply better to risk women's lives rather than to create an across the board competency test for breast care. It is better to say that the test doesn't do anything in the vast majority of cases rather than outline a plan to make those who read mammograms more competent.

So, the upshot is this. Get. Your. Mammogram. Make all the jokes you want. Laugh. Be silly. Complain. But one day, it might be the reason you dance at your grandchildren’s weddings.