With all the recent news and public interest in mammography and breast cancer detection, I remember back a generation ago, actually two generations ago, about an incident which affected our family, in which the timely and efficient use of diagnostic imaging could have made a big difference for all of us.

In the mid-1960's, my grandmother was stricken with breast cancer. She was then in her late 50's.  For some time, her physician noticed a lump in her breast and had taken a very conservative, most likely too conservative, course of action. With regard to this lump, we were told that her doctor was "watching it."   In those days of  the early 1960's, mammography devices did not exist, so detection of breast cancer often did not occur until the disease had significantly progressed.

The story is that this lump was not medically dealt with until several years had passed. In 1965 several of my family accompanied my grandmother to Yale New Haven Hospital, where my grandmother underwent a radical mastectomy. Unlike today, when a number of alternative surgical options, such as lumpectomy, may exist for treatment of breast cancer, if detected early,  back then performance of radical mastectomy was pretty much standard operating procedure.

Following the surgery, my grandmother strove with great courage to make the best of her disease and disfigurement. Tragically, the cancer metastasized and gradually broke her resolve to fight against it. She lost her battle to the cancer and passed away in 1969, when she was 64 years old.  We were a close family and the loss was devastating to all of us.

With the advances in mammography technology now in use today, allowing earlier detection and thus providing more opportunities to deal with the disease at a more treatable level, not every breast cancer diagnosis is an automatic death sentence. In fact, there are many women alive today who are breast cancer survivors. Early, competent intervention can make all the difference with the right clinical care and the right technology.

I can't help thinking that if my grandmother had faced the same circumstances in the 21st century, instead of in the 1960's, she might not have succumbed so early in life to this disease. She might have lived to see her grandchildren graduate from college, marry and experience the joy of becoming a great grandmother. What a difference a generation makes.


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