By Linda Morgan

The Quality Forum, like many other organizations and groups, is sharing wonderful information with you throughout October about breast cancer awareness, but I think one of the most important takeaways you may hear or read about is the importance of early detection.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), early detection is “an approach that lets breast cancer get diagnosed earlier than otherwise might have occurred.” The ACS guidelines for most adults include regular breast self-exams, clinical breast exams and mammograms as well as MRIs for some women with certain health factors.

Although early detection may not prevent the disease, it helps improve chances for early diagnosis and treatment. As a breast cancer survivor, I know first-hand the value of early detection and its equally important partner, timely follow-through.

Back in June 1995, while taking a shower, I felt something strange under my left arm. It was hard … about the size of a pea. I had never felt anything like that before. Quite honestly, my first thought was – cancer. I then quickly came up with other less dramatic, frightening and life-threatening explanations: an insect bite, a cyst, an infection, a cut, a blemish – anything but cancer.

Granted, my gender put me (and all women) at risk for starters, but I was only in my late 30s. I also watched my diet, regularly exercised and didn’t smoke. How could it possibly be cancer? I couldn’t handle the thought that this little lump might be signaling a serious health condition. I was terrified, but I didn’t say anything to anyone. In fact, I felt quite sure that if I didn’t touch it, see it or talk about it, this “thing” would definitely go away and leave me alone.

So I let a week go by, and then another one, and then several more. That little swelling didn’t go away – it actually became larger. As it grew, so did my anxiety. And then, after pretending it didn’t exist for about five weeks, it became painful and started to hurt. I finally decided to talk to a friend who happened to be a breast cancer educator. I was so scared that initially, I couldn’t bring myself to ask her about this. But when I did, she advised me to see my physician as soon as possible, who advised me to see a surgeon as soon as possible, who advised me to see an oncologist as soon as possible. I had Stage IIB breast cancer, and that lump meant it had spread to my lymph nodes.

Well, the good news is that this happened 18 years ago, and I’m proud to be a breast cancer survivor. But I still think back to those five weeks in 1995, and what I experienced due to my fear of the unknown. Emotionally, it was as tough as some of the treatment and procedures I went through after the diagnosis. I found the mass under my arm early on, but it took me far too long to report it to my doctor.

So, I‘d like to add a little something extra – lagniappe – to the early detection plan: be relentless about it. If you notice something different about your body or skin, don’t ignore it. Have it checked by a health care professional experienced in diagnosing breast diseases. It’s often said that information is power, and when it comes to breast cancer, that can be a huge advantage in terms of timing, choices, outlook, etc.

Be healthy … be hopeful … be  happy!