Invasive cancer

In the following weeks, the news went from bad to worse. Further tests revealed that the cancer had spread across one of her breasts and it had to be removed. Following surgery, a pathology report revealed the cancer was invasive and had spread to her lymph nodes.

MacLean, who was a senior product manager with a high tech company, endured four months of chemotherapy and another month of radiation before starting on medication that interferes with the growth and spread of cancer cells. The next year, her ovaries and fallopian tubes were removed as a precautionary measure. Today, almost nine years later, she is healthy.

“75 percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no risk factors at all.”

Screening saves lives

MacLean says she owes her life to breast screening. If not for the mammogram that raised a red flag, which she had requested at the urging of a colleague, Maclean wouldn’t have discovered she had cancer until much later — and it might have been too late. MacLean, who was 46 years old at the time, was feeling fine and had no inkling anything was wrong.

Many Canadian women have similar stories, says radiologist Jean Seely, who is an active member of the Canadian Association of Radiologists (CAR) Breast Imaging Working Group and the Head of Breast Imaging at the Women’s Breast Health Centre in Ottawa Hospital.

“Often, when I tell a woman she has breast cancer, she is blown away. She says, ‘I eat well and I exercise regularly. There is no history of breast cancer in my family. How could this happen?’ But unfortunately, it does happen.”

Seely says that 75 percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no risk factors at all.

Screening is key

She stands by the CAR guidelines and recommends screening for women 40 years and older — breast cancer rates are dramatically lower among younger women — and dismisses claims that screening with mammography doesn’t reduce the number of women who die from breast cancer.

Seely points to a Canadian study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in October 2014 that determined breast cancer screening reduces mortality rates by 40 percent in all women, and by 44 percent in women aged 40-49 years.

Seely also notes that it’s easier to get screened than most people realize. A woman doesn’t always need a physician’s referral to get a mammogram. Once she is in the Ontario Breast Screening Program — which provides screening to all women in the province between the ages of 50 and 74 — she can self-refer. Women 40-49 years old require a referral from a family physician. Other provincial screening programs have similar processes in place, although details vary among provinces.

You are your own advocate

In Ontario, women in the program get screened every one to two years unless they are considered high risk. In that case they get a mammogram and breast MRI annually. “Simply put, breast screening saves lives,” says Seely.

No one is more convinced of that than MacLean. “I urge every woman to be her own advocate. Know what screening tests are available to you and ask about them,” she says. “Because anything can happen to anyone.”