Keeping promise saved woman's life

Aileen Clarke, of Owaka, survived breast cancer and recommends women have mammograms earlier than...
Aileen Clarke, of Owaka, survived breast cancer and recommends women have mammograms earlier than is recommended by doctors. Photo by Rachel Taylor.
The mobile breast-screening unit left Balclutha this week after being there since since April 8. Rachel Taylor talks to a woman who owes her life to having had a mammogram - and keeping a promise to a friend who wasn't so lucky...

Before Sharron Kopier, of Christchurch, died of breast cancer in 2006, she made friend Aileen Clarke promise to have mammograms before she turned 45.

Keeping that promise saved the Owaka woman's life.

Mrs Clarke had eight weeks of radiation treatment after a mammogram two years ago revealed she had two lumps, one in each breast.

One tumour was 2mm across and the other was 5mm.

"I went in March 2008, just before I turned 45 - They got me to go back." A biopsy of the 5mm tumour confirmed it was cancerous.

"They put me in [to hospital] and took it out of both breasts and biopsied my lymph node."

Her friend Sharron Kopier died of breast cancer on May 2, 2006, at the age of 44.

She was 38 when she found a lump - It was quite sizeable, Mrs Clarke said.

"She wasn't in the age category for free mammograms and she made me promise to have mammograms early."

Mrs Clarke started having mammograms in her late 30s.

"The cancer was estrogen-receptive and 2nd grade.

"If I had waited until I was 45 [to have free mammograms], it would have spread."

Neither Mrs Clarke nor Ms Kopier had a family history of breast cancer.

"Although you are thrown into a world you don't want to be in, there is a certain amount of security in being proactive," Mrs Clarke said.

She found a certain level of comfort when she had "an action plan" for treatment, she said.

She did not need chemotherapy, but had radiation therapy every day for about eight weeks.

"There is a real science to it - They measure where the cancer was, and measure for radius and depth.

"The initial treatment is OK," she said.

"It's painless until it builds up in the area they are doing it. It builds up and starts to feel like burns after about a week."

The mobile breast-screening unit had been in Balclutha since April 8, and was due to leave town yesterday.

Southern District Health Board (DHB) diagnostics service manager Irene Wilson said between June 2009 and May 2010, 17, 233 women in the Otago/Southland regions had undergone breast screening in hospitals and the mobile unit.

During those 11 months, 63 women were diagnosed with breast cancer.

The mobile unit had included some time at the end of its visit in case more women registered for their first screen before it left, Ms Wilson said.

"Otherwise, they would need to wait another two years before we come back."

People are afraid of having mammograms because if they go looking for something, they might find something, Mrs Clarke said.

"The whole point is to get it early and get it dealt with. If they have got the means to go early, they should."

She recommends women get mammograms from their late 30s onwards: "It's about $110 every two years," she said.

Mrs Clarke said mammograms were not painful.

There was some discomfort, but it was only for about five seconds.

"The benefits of it are huge. To be told: 'It's all clear' is liberating, because you no longer have that unknown - And if they do find something, there is also some comfort in being proactive about treatment," she said.

Mrs Clarke has her next mammogram on July 5.

"I have check-ups every three months.

"You only hear about the non-success stories. The people who get treatment and survive don't talk about it."

If people have had success stories, they need to talk about it and encourage people, she said.

"We are lucky in New Zealand. From 45, mammograms are free and treatment is free - Why not use it? Why take the risk of not going along?"

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