A postponed mammogram reveals 3 worrisome spots

The convenience of having her routine mammogram right where she works (as a volunteer at Saint Francis Hospital-Bartlett) convinced Mary Esch to schedule an appointment despite several delays. And she’s very glad she got the screening when she did. Photo by Carolyn Bahm.

Mary Esch of Bartlett, 85, had a close brush with a serious illness, but a routine health check was her saving grace.

She skipped her mammogram last year because her gynecologist moved, and it was easy to let the routine health check slide.

She debated skipping again this year because she’s 85 and thought, “You know, at that age, why fool with it?” But she volunteers at Saint Francis Hospital-Bartlett, so she also thought, “Well, why not.”

So she made an April appointment but then postponed it because she had pneumonia and acute bronchitis. She made another appointment but moved it back too because she was still badly coughing. She finally completed the procedure in May.

To her surprise, she received a follow-up letter saying she needed a more intensive diagnostic mammogram. After that, she got a call saying needle biopsies were needed to check out three suspicious spots in her left breast.

Diagnosis: Breast cancer.

“You know, I really wasn’t that upset,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that God takes care of you. And I feel like I had my family, which is wonderful, and friends. … It’s not something you want to hear, for sure, but I wasn’t that upset. I just felt like things would be okay.”

She commented, “I’ll tell everybody: Your attitude makes all the difference in the world. You can be down, or you can think positive. I definitely think attitude is a lot of it. Just life in general.”

She had already survived colon cancer in 1994 and went through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy at that time. Instead of feeling self-pity, she braced herself for this new health challenge.

“Thankfully, we caught this early,” she said.

Her surgeon, Dr. Melvin Payne III, performed a total mastectomy on her left side on July 17 at Saint Francis-Bartlett. She said both she and her daughters were impressed with the level of care she got while at the hospital.

One or two weeks later she saw Dr. William Walsh, an oncologist at the same hospital. He told her it looked like the surgery removed all the cancer, and she would not need any difficult rounds of chemotherapy or radiation.

“I’m taking a little bitty pill, Letrozole, and I supposed from what I hear I’ll probably take that for five years or so, unless complications or something,” Esch said.

She asked her doctor why she didn’t feel the spots during her routine self-checks. He told her the spots were still too small to be detected that way.

She has two daughters, five grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, and she said support from her family helped her through the recovery. One daughter, who lives about 120 miles away, stayed with her the first week, and her other daughter, who lives nearby, took care of her on the weekend.

Esch also praised Pink Ribbons, a Memphis boutique that caters to the special clothing needs of patients who have had mastectomies or who are being treated for lymphedema (limb swelling, commonly caused by lymph node damage as a part of cancer treatment).

“I wish every lady that has to have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy would know about it,” she said.

She went to the boutique about four to six weeks after her surgery and again in about three months to get properly fitted for new bras. Medicare paid for it all, she said, and she was glad to have good insurance as well.

Today, she remains pleased with all the health care and support she received and is happy to be back at home, enjoying her usual routines.

“I think I’m pretty much back to norm,” she said at her home last week. “I’ve always done all my housework and yard work.”

She chuckled and said her yard work didn’t get the same attention this year as in years past, but she’s otherwise doing fine. “I pretty well take care of myself.”

She still leads an active life as a volunteer at Saint Francis since 2010, and she volunteers at church one day each week. She’s confident that she’s gotten her full strength back by now.

“God’s been good to me,” she said, adding that He’s been with her throughout her life. “Faith and family and friends. God is good.”

She agreed to tell her cancer survival story in hopes it might encourage others to get a mammogram or breast check, possibly alerting them before they develop advanced cancer.

Esch cautioned, “Don’t think you have to feel something before you go. I think it should be automatic. I think you ought to just set that up like your yearly checkup.”