Early detection of cancer essential

By James Fuller

``It saved my life,'' says Sandy Gilligan of the routine mammogram which revealed she had breast cancer.

Sitting in the peaceful, homely surroundings of the Breast Cancer Support Service Tauranga Trust, Ms Gilligan encourages other women to take up the free mammograms available to them.

``The Breast Screen Aotearoa programme is fantastic. I can tell you it's saving lives. There are women out there who are going along thinking all is well, just as I did, and then having an abnormal mammogram. But that's positive, it gives you the chance to say `right, we've got to sort this out'. Quite often it can be a benign lump or even a cyst. It's always better to know.''

For Ms Gilligan there had been no prior indication of any problems. Life was progressing normally for the mother-of-two who was screened just before going on a week-long holiday with her sister.

``I got back from holiday and got a phone call at home to ask if I could come back to have a repeat mammogram. The next day I went to see my GP and she said an abnormality had been picked up.''

A second mammogram and ultrasound confirmed the presence of that abnormality. A sample was taken, via core biopsy, and sent to a pathologist.

``A few days later I got the phone call to say I had been diagnosed with breast cancer,'' says the 69-year-old from Otumoetai.

Speaking of the shock of learning she had a life-threatening illness she pauses and looks away before simply saying: `

`It was upsetting.''

Ms Gilligan says she remembers the subsequent sequence of events vividly.

``The first person I called was my sister, who lives here in the Bay. She came over and then I rang my daughter Janine in Auckland and gave her the news. My son Michael was in the South Island on business so Janine rang to tell him. When I spoke to my daughter I was quite calm but I could hear in her voice how upset she was.''

A short time later her son rang.

``He said `Oh mum, I've been dreading this phone call'. I said: `Come on, it's going to be all right. You know me. It's just a bit of a nuisance. We'll sort it out.' I wasn't really feeling like that but I needed to comfort them too.''

Ms Gilligan was booked to see a surgeon at Tauranga Hospital and, at the meeting, was told she had an infiltrating ductal carcinoma.

``Infiltrating meant it wasn't localised any longer, it was on the move,'' she says. ``We had a really good discussion and he recommended a lumpectomy. There's several procedures you can have to treat the tumours but it depends on the tumour, the size, the location and the patient themselves.''

The operation, the start of what became nearly a year of treatment, was a success.

``They leave you for about six weeks after surgery because you have to heal and be well enough to cope with the next stage, which for me was chemotherapy.''

Ms Gilligan lost her hair during the chemotherapy treatment but it also was successful.

``I then started radiation treatment. You get a simulation day where you meet the radiation oncologist and he takes you through the process. He tells you the area to be treated and you're tattooed on the area. That's so the radiation people know where to treat you.''

Ms Gilligan, who went through her battle with cancer in 2000 when she was 57, was treated in the public health system. During her treatment she spent six weeks at the Lions Cancer Lodge, based in the Waikato Hospital grounds, in Hamilton.

``The lodge, the rooms, the food, the care were all fantastic,'' she says. ``Everyone who looked after me whether it was at Tauranga Hospital or at Waikato were absolutely wonderful. They're really special people.''

Following Ms Gilligan's radiation treatment she was prescribed Tamoxifen for five years.

``You're appointed an oncologist to monitor your progress and I started off with three monthly visits. As time went on and all was well, I went to six monthly and then annual. Now here I am nearly 13 years down the track and all is well.''

Ms Gilligan, who became a trustee of the Breast Cancer Support Service Tauranga Trust in 2001, has yearly mammograms and will do for the rest of her life. She encourages women to take up the free, biennial, mammograms available for 45 to 69-year-olds.

``I encourage women as strongly as I can to have their mammograms done to make sure all is well ... And, if something is picked up and it is breast cancer, early detection gives you a much better chance of being cured and enjoying a long life.''

- Bay of Plenty Times

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