Knowledge is power—the power to seek better treatment, get earlier diagnoses and stop breast cancer in its tracks. Here’s what you can learn from a survivor.

By Alison Nazarowksi
Courtesy of Nazarowksi

I don’t have a good explanation for why I picked up the phone and made an appointment for a mammogram last year. I was 46 and healthy, with no family history of breast cancer. I didn’t feel any lumps and I’d had baseline screenings at 40 and 42. According to the new guidelines, it would have been just fine to wait until I was 50 to go back. And, honestly, I really hate mammograms. Who doesn’t? It’s like a garage door being slammed on your breasts. Also, when I’d had my baselines, they’d kept me waiting forever and scared the heck out of me. But one day, for some reason, I just started thinking: I should do it. In the time since, I’ve truly come to believe that there must have been a guardian angel watching over me. 

Like many premenopausal women, I have dense breasts, which means it can be more difficult for the technician to get a good picture. I booked a diagnostic mammogram—which means the radiologist was reading the results while I waited—to ensure I wouldn’t be called back to the clinic for more images. On the morning of my appointment, I had a standard 2D digital mammogram and headed to the waiting room. A few minutes later, the technician told me that the radiologist saw something on my film but wasn’t sure what it was. Then she asked if I would be willing to do a 3D mammogram. I said yes right away—confused about why she was even asking. Then she explained that my insurance might not cover it, and the out-of-pocket cost could be pretty high. I even had to sign a waiver promising I’d pay if insurance didn’t.

On the 3D mammogram, the radiologist saw some things she didn’t like and ordered an ultrasound. At that point, she essentially told me it was cancer, and she wanted to do a needle biopsy that very day. I called my husband, sobbing, and he came to be with me. Three days later I got the call confirming the diagnosis.

As one of my friends said, “You got the best worst news possible,” and I totally agree. The “best” part? They caught my cancer early, before it had spread, so after a full mastectomy and reconstruction, I didn’t need chemo. And without that 3D mammo, I firmly believe that my early diagnosis wouldn’t have happened. As a full-time attorney and part-time judge, I didn’t even have to think before signing the waiver saying I’d pay if I had to. But I can’t imagine what that situation would feel like to someone who doesn’t have my financial security. It’s ridiculous to have to decide between buying groceries or figuring out if you have cancer, which is why insurance should cover 3D. Some states already mandate 3D coverage for women with dense breasts, but others—including Georgia, where I lived then—do not. It’s high time they all do.