Get tested to survive women's cancers

Keely Dakin
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“Taking the time to get screened, that could save your life. Isn’t that worth the time?” Kelly Zbaraschuk asked.

Charlene Bernard, unit manager of the Prince Albert Unit of the Canadian Cancer Society, holds up a Thing-A-Ma-Boob at the annual Lunch With Friends in support of Women's Cancer Awareness Month. A Thing-A-Ma-Boob is a keychain is made up of a series of progressively larger plastic beads, each one representing the average size of a lump of breast cancer found by a woman checking her own breasts, a doctor checking them manually or a mammogram. It serves as a constant reminder that getting checked for breast cancer with a mammogram is the surest way to catch cancer early on. The earlier it is found, the greater the chance of survival.

Zbaraschuk spoke at the annual Women’s Cancer Awareness luncheon about the Saskatchewan Screening Program for Breast Cancer (SPBC). She is an x-ray technician who has been working with the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region (PAPHR) for more than 18 years.

The luncheon has been held for more than 10 years during the month of October, which is Women’s Cancer Awareness Month, as a way to bring women together and spread knowledge about the cancers women are at risk to develop.

There are four common cancers that women get, which can be detected early on with regular screening or by checking out unusual symptoms with your doctor. Those are breast, cervical, colorectal and skin.

In 2012, an estimated 960 women in this province will be diagnosed with either breast, cervical, ovarian or uterine cancer, said Charlene Bernard, the unit manager of the Prince Albert Unit of the Canadian Cancer Society.

“When you add three other cancers that are common in women (colorectal, lung and melanoma) another estimated 760 women will be told they have cancer,” Bernard said.

In Saskatchewan, one in nine women will develop breast cancer. Getting older and being a woman are the greatest risk factors. More than 75 per cent of women who do develop breast cancer do not have any other risk factors.

SPBC is a Saskatchewan-wide program built to detect breast cancer early on by using screening mammography.

Every year 36,000 to 37,000 women are screened. Of that, approximately 200 cancers are found.

When a woman turns 50 she will begin receiving letters in the mail, inviting her to begin an annual breast screen mammography. These will continue to be delivered to her door until she is 75, Zbaraschuk said.

Women over 75 can and should continue to get mammograms, even though they will no longer receive the annual reminders.

“(Continue the tests,) as long as you are healthy enough that you’re going to do something about it,” Zbaraschuk said.

“In most cases, catching cancer in its early stages is the key,” she said.

Cancer growth is categorized into stages. If a cancer is caught while still in stage one of the, the chance of survival is 95 per cent or better to live over five years. If a cancer patient survives more than five years, than they have usually beaten the cancer, Zbaraschuk said.

In contrast, if it is not caught until it reaches stage four, the chance is less than 10 per cent.

The SPBC program in Prince Albert has upgraded its machinery to digital.

The amount of radiation which is dispersed by the digital mammogram is about half that of what was expended by the previous film version, Zbaraschuk said.

The digital one also has more detailed resolution and allows for earlier detection of breast cancer.

That very detail means that women are more commonly being recommended for further testing, sometimes unnecessarily. However Zbaraschuk says that it is better to be cautious.

The difference between a diagnostic and a screening mammogram is that the diagnostic must be ordered by a physician and takes longer. If there is evidence during the screening, she will be sent for a diagnostic as well, but only then.

Manny factors influence whether a person will be recommended for further testing. One of those factors is the quantity of their breast that is made up of what is referred to as dense breast tissue.

“If you have more than 75 per cent dense breast tissue, you will be recalled (for further testing),” Zbaraschuk said.

Sometimes the questions asked during a screening can seem a little invasive, but not without reason Zbaraschuk said.

“Every question that we ask has a purpose,” Zbaraschuk said.

Questions you can expect to receive:

Who is your doctor? This is asked so that information can be shared with all the professional necessary to ensure the client receives the most accurate care.

What is your family history of breast cancer? Statistics show that a person with a family history of cancer in their direct family, are more likely to contract the disease. That means your mother, sister, daughter, and even the men in your family as men can also get breast cancer.

How old are you? This also affects a person’s likelihood of contracting cancer.

Have you ever been on hormone replacements? There is a correlation showing higher rates of breast cancer in women how used hormone replacements.

“Now when you get told you or someone you love gets told they have breast cancer, it’s not the death sentence it was, even 18 years ago, when I started.”

Allison Marcotte, office assistant at the Prince Albert Unit of the Canadian Cancer Society, knows intimately the danger of not getting something suspicious checked out immediately.

“I know, after losing my husband a year-and-a-half ago, some of that early detection stuff could have come in handy,” Marcotte said.

Anyone under the age of 50 must go the diagnostic route, which is recommended if you have risk factors, said Zbaraschuk.

The most important thing for women and men to remember is you need to know your own body. If something doesn’t feel right, get it checked out, even if you are not yet 50 and a part of the screening program.

More information can be found about cancers concerning women at

Organizations: Prince Albert, Canadian Cancer Society

Geographic location: Saskatchewan

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