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Breast Health: One Woman’s Loss Leads to a Renewed Focus on Her Health

This article was previously published on Atrium Health's Daily Dose

​Distracted with family, her work as an assistant district attorney and the COVID-19 pandemic, Sally Kirby-Turner says she missed her regular OB-GYN appointment. Her co-workers and friends knew breast cancer was in her family, so they reminded her to reschedule the appointment. It's a good thing they did.

Sally has known for years that seeing an OB-GYN was important for her health. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when Sally was just a baby, and she fought for years until she succumbed to the disease when Sally was only five years old. She started with a baseline mammogram, the standard against which future exams can be compared as breast tissue changes in density thickness, and small cysts and lumps can form over the years.

"I had my first mammogram in my 20s before I had children so I could compare it to after I had children and then every year after I turned 40. In October 2020 I had forgotten my appointment. The quickest I could get in for the mammogram was in December. I was 41 years old, and the results showed I had a mass in my left breast."

Sally was in shock and scared but felt confident in her physician and her planned treatment.

Go When Well, Not Sick

Dr. Katie Borders with Atrium Health Women's Care Shelby OB-GYN, caught Sally's cancer early thanks to her patient being so diligent about her own healthcare.

"Too many people think 'I'm healthy, I don't need to go to the doctor'," says Borders. "Really, we love those kinds of visitswhere we can talk to you about your history, what kinds of screenings you need and make a plan moving forward. People think you have to have an active problem to go to a doctor, but we have preventive visits to catch things early or keep things from happening. That's a good reason to come see us at least once a year."

Sally's Treatment

Borders referred Sally to Dr. Amy Voci with Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute (Breast & Surgical Oncology) where she underwent a lumpectomy to remove the cancer from her breast and a sentinel lymph node biopsy to help discover if the cancer had spread from a tumor to the sentinel lymph node. The sentinel lymph node is the lymph node where cancer is most likely to spread to first if it is going to metastasize from a primary cancer site to other areas of the body. If cancer cells develop within a lymph node, there is a higher risk of the cancer spreading around the body, making it harder to treat.

Three lymph nodes were positive for cancer cells, so Voci performed a full lymph node dissection and gave Sally the good news that the cancer did not spread.

"I have to applaud Sally and Dr. Borders for being diligent with her screening mammograms, so we were able to detect and treat her at an early stage with excellent outcomes," Voci says. "Sally has used her experience as such a positive platform which will benefit so many women in the future."

Sally doesn't want to think about the outcome if she hadn't rescheduled her appointment. "This could have been bad if I didn't have an OBG-YN," says Sally. "It can be an inconvenience to go when you have kids, work and COVID is still around but youreally do need to have a doctor and make regular appointments. Make your health a priority."

Learn Your Family History

Borders says women tend to manage everyone else's lives so sometimes their health takes a back seat.

"One of the things that needs to be a priority is breast health," says Borders. "Know your family history. First degree relatives, like parents or siblings, with the disease infer the most risk. More distant relatives like grandparents or great-grandparents do not, however trends in families are important. Sally's mother died of breast cancer. We were watching her like a hawk, and this still happened. Had she not gotten her screening like she was supposed to, it may have been worse for her."

And if you are unaware of your family history, Voci says get screened. "I worry some women have a false sense of security believing they may not be at risk of developing breast cancer if they don't have a family history and delay or avoid their annual screenings. The reality is 75% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history therefore it does not apply to the majority of women."

Sally finished radiation in June 2021 and is on hormone suppression therapy, which she jokes, basically puts her in menopause. Hormone therapy is often used after surgery to help reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.

"The worst thing," says Sally, "are the hot flashes. But I'm not going to complain!"

Although Sally lost her mother at very young age, her father remarried when Sally was six years old and has had the support of her stepmother ever since, especially during breast cancer treatment. Today, Sally's sons are 10 and 13, and she plans to continue scheduling well visits and making her health a priority – for her and her family.

Whether you're starting a family, navigating menopause or just staying healthy, Atrium Health Women's Care is here. With support at every step, we provide care that fits your unique needs and helps you feel your best. Find a provider and make an appointment now. 

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Wednesday, 30 November 2022

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