October 11, 2023

Early breast cancer detection improves quality of life

For 75-year-old Peggy Dickston, a surprise diagnosis was caught early thanks to her commitment to annual screenings.

Peggy Dickston from Portland, Oregon, enjoys a meal on a recent visit to Prague.

When Peggy Dickston went in for a mammogram just before her 76th birthday, she wasn’t worried. She didn’t have a family history of breast cancer and had been diligent about getting annual mammograms for decades. “I was very naive,” said Dickston. “I thought that, since I was in my seventies and had never had any issues, I had escaped breast cancer.”

But as she would soon learn, people are more likely to develop breast cancer as they age.

Soon after that mammogram, Dickston was contacted and asked to return for additional testing. After an ultrasound, then a biopsy, her nurse navigator at Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon, called with the news that she had breast cancer. Fortunately, Dickston’s diligence about getting regular mammograms paid off.

Reassurance and hope for recovery

“When my nurse navigator delivered the news, she was very reassuring that this was curable and that we got this very early,” said Dickston. “I didn’t think of it as a death sentence.”

In fact, Dickston’s cancer was caught so early that, even though she’d always been good about doing breast self-exams, neither she nor her doctor could physically detect it. That made all the difference for her prognosis, and it gave her more choice in which treatments to pursue.

When my nurse navigator delivered the news, she was very reassuring that this was curable and that we got this very early.

“When it comes to cancer, size does matter,” said Margaret Bower, MD, a general surgeon with Kaiser Permanente. “In Peggy’s case, we removed the cancerous tissue and did radiation, which allowed us to preserve the breast. If it were a larger lump, we might not have been able to do that.”

Dickston’s treatment went so well that, within just 4 months of her diagnosis, she was able to travel with her husband throughout Eastern Europe as they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Now back home in Oregon, she has resumed her active retired life, doing deep-water aerobics, helping to care for her grandchildren, and volunteering in her community.

Advanced treatments that lead to good outcomes

Breast cancer is complex. But as Dickston’s experience shows, regular screening and early detection can dramatically improve your prognosis and treatment options.

“The prognosis for most breast cancers is very good,” said Dr. Bower. “We have really cutting-edge treatments that lead to good outcomes, and we want to catch cancers early so we can cure them.”

The best way to stay ahead of breast cancer is through screening and self-exams. Recommendations for how frequently people should get mammograms vary depending on family history, personal risk, prior screening, and other factors. If you’re unsure whether you should be getting regular mammograms, Dr. Bower recommends having that conversation with your primary care team if you’re approaching 40 or are over 40.

Dr. Bower also recommends that people do their own monthly breast self-exam. “The most frequent thing I hear is that people don’t know what to look for. What I encourage people to do is have a sense of familiarity so they can feel a big change, then make themselves a priority and talk to someone about any changes or concerns.”

Learn more about cancer care at Kaiser Permanente.