Theresa Heinz Kerry’s last piece seen at WVFC was on the need for long-term care to be included in health reform, which seems now to be occurring (at least as of today). Even then, we learn now, Heinz Kerry was facing her own health-care crisis, after a routine mammogram last year revealed she had breast cancer. So when the new U.S. Preventive Services Task Force guidelines came out (see WVFC’s experts weigh in here), Heinz Kerry decided to tell her story. We hope her reasoned perspective helps guide federal policymakers in the future.
Under ordinary circumstances, the revised mammogram guidelines recommended last month by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force would have struck me as misguided. But these were not ordinary circumstances, at least not for me. Just before the guidelines were released, I had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was one of those strange accidents of timing that sometimes happen in life. I know some people dismiss these instances as meaningless coincidence. But as someone who believes God has a special if mysterious purpose for each us in this world, I have always paid special attention to them.
They can instruct, inspire and guide us, or sometimes just invite us to reflect for a moment longer than we otherwise might do. It is healthy to be reminded occasionally that we are not so much in charge as we would like to believe, and then to consider what that means in how we are living our lives.
In this case, it has motivated me to be public about something I had kept private for two months, to share something deeply personal in the hope of helping others.
So here are the facts as I know them now.
I was diagnosed and treated for stage one cancer (two different types) in both breasts. The cancer was detected at an early stage thanks to a mammogram and the work of a remarkable physician who insisted on investigating beyond what the mammogram could show. I have had two operations and my prognosis for a full recovery is good.
Cancer patients sometimes speak of their diagnosis as a gift and now I understand why. The stress of illness can be daunting – on the way to my second surgery I even managed to fall down some steep stairs, hit my head hard enough on the floor to get a concussion and broke my heel. I have learned that I am far from alone in having this sort of “when it rains it pours” story to share.
But my illness also reminded me to slow down, cherish family and friends, and deepen my sense of life as a gift to be unwrapped each day with newfound joy and hope. And it appears I am among those blessed to go on enjoying that gift – because I have wonderful health care and amazing doctors, yes, but also because of routine screening.
The mantra of prevention and early detection has guided me since my childhood. My father was a doctor, and from watching him question and listen to his patients, and from watching him teach them to prevent further disease, I learned how important it is for us to understand the connection between our health and the world around us.
The notion that preventing injury and illness is far better and safer than having to treat them guided me years later to become an advocate for understanding the relationship between women’s health, pediatric health and the environment. It has been part of my personal mission to persuade everyone from policy makers to individual women to study and to try to remove causes of disease and catch illness in its earliest stages.
This is not always comfortable or convenient. As any woman can attest, mammograms can be nerve racking. And as the government’s task force pointed out, they can produce misleading results and anxiety. But I’ve been personally reminded that they also can produce something else: a lifesaving early diagnosis.
The members of the task force were predisposed to choose numbers over people and their recommendations forgot that women do not need more excuses not to get a mammogram at regular intervals, as determined by their doctors. Our busy lives are full of those. What we need are more reasons to keep those appointments, more support of the value of prevention and refinement of diagnostic procedures, and more choices.
I am not a doctor or medical expert, but it is neither the doctors nor the experts to whom I wish to speak here. It is, rather, to all the women who have been left confused by this latest report, and to all those who love them.
Like many of you, I have seen friends die because their cancers were detected too late. And like many of you, I suspect, I have just been given my own personal tutorial in the value of early detection.
My message is simple: That mammogram appointment? Keep it. And make your appointment for next year while you’re at it.
This editorial first appeared on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.