Advice worth sharing — Breast cancer patient encourages regular screening

This story is featured in the Fall 2012 edition of myBoone Health magazine. Click here for a free subscription.

Penny Braun is mid-Missouri’s unofficial ambassador for annual mammograms.

Over the last three years, pretty much anyone who has crossed Braun’s path has heard her speak about the need to get screened. That includes friends, family, acquaintances — even salespeople who call her house.

Penny Braun

“With me, it’s normally, ‘How do you do? Have you had your mammogram lately?” said Braun, 71, who is a retired English professor at Columbia College and executive director of the local Alzheimer’s Association.

Just this summer, Braun made a point to stop some yard workers at her home as they were packing up to leave.

“As they were leaving I told them, ‘You need to get your wives to go get their mammograms,’” she said.

Braun’s devotion to encouraging mammography comes after screenings helped save her life — not once, but twice — over the last three years.

As recommended for women who don’t have a family history of breast cancer, Braun began getting her annual mammogram at age 40.

The screenings came back clear until three years ago, when doctors at Boone Hospital’s Harris Breast Center discovered a tiny cancerous lump in Braun’s right breast.

She was startled by the cancer discovery. However, she was thankful doctors caught it early. As an even-tempered person, Braun said she simply hunkered down and completed her prescribed treatment.

“I’m not likely to get scared,” she said. “My theory is that if they catch it early, at least you don’t have to worry that you’re too late to get it fixed.”

By the next year, Braun was done with treatment and was cancer-free.

But this July, her mammography at the Harris Breast Center again uncovered a cancer. This time, the cancer was in her left breast and was completely unrelated to her previous cancerous lump. Fortunately, doctors also caught this cancer in an early stage.

Dr. Terry Elwing, MD, a radiologist at the Harris Breast Center, said the hospital’s 3D mammography capabilities are what made it possible to detect Braun’s second cancer.

Dr. Terry Elwing

The hospital introduced 3D mammography earlier in 2012. The new scan takes only a couple seconds longer than a traditional mammogram. However, in those extra seconds, the machine uses a technology called tomography to create a 3D image of the breast.

Traditional mammograms provide radiologists just one flat two-dimensional image. But with 3D mammography, doctors can scan through the breast in layers, finding small cancers that were previously undetectable.

Since 3D mammography was introduced at Boone Hospital, radiologists have been able to discover a number of cancers that would have been otherwise invisible. This allows treatment to begin sooner, when more treatment options are available.

Dr. Elwing said without 3D mammography, Braun’s cancer might have gone undetected until it had reached a more advanced stage.

“This is a cancer that with the older technology we might have not been able to detect for another two or three years,” she said. “But now, we’re finding these problems earlier than ever before, when they are easier to treat.”

Braun is still going through treatment for her second cancer. Because it was detected early, she has strong hopes for a positive outcome.

She said she’s been impressed by how kind, considerate and competent her service has been at Boone Hospital during her treatment.

“Every single nurse, every single doctor seems genuinely concerned,” she said. “It’s been exhilarating. Frankly, I brag about them a lot.”

Braun’s repeat experience with breast cancer, and the beneficial power of annual mammography, has only strengthened her desire to continue to preach about the importance of annual screenings.

Just after her second diagnosis, she attended her regular Kiwanis Club meeting and decided to stand in front of the room and make an impromptu speech about mammography.

“I have something to tell you,” she told the group of mostly men. “The bad news is, I have breast cancer. But the good news is I know I have breast cancer. Please tell all your wives, all your daughters, all your daughters-in-law, to go get their mammograms because if you catch it early, it’s a treatable condition.”

As she continues her treatment, Braun had three pieces of advice for anyone who will listen.

First and foremost, she encourages women to get a mammogram every year. This is a must.

Second, between mammograms, she advises women to regularly check their breasts at home for lumps, and to follow up with a physician should they feel something unusual.

Finally, Braun wants other women to understand that knowledge is power. She said she occasionally comes across women who avoid mammograms for one reason or another.

Sometimes, it’s almost like they’re afraid to learn about a problem. But Braun said having a mammogram empowers a woman to move forward and takes worry-causing uncertainty out of the equation.

“After a mammogram, either you can walk away and not think about it for another year, or get started on fixing what they found,” Braun said. “It’s an event that you need to deal with. And the sooner you can do it, the better off you are.”

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