I will always remember the afternoon I got “the call.” I was about to head to the Senate Chamber to vote when I received the news from my doctor that we all fear: I had cancer.
A few weeks earlier, doctors at Mayo Clinic found small white spots called calcifications during a routine mammogram. After this was discovered, I had a biopsy at Piper Breast Center in Minneapolis. And then I got “the call.”
That was eight months ago—the start of a path that would include surgery and radiation, which also coincided with my dad’s illness and death. Of course this has been difficult at times, but today my doctors say that my chances of developing cancer again are no greater than the average person’s.
As we recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I am thinking about the many Americans who may have breast cancer but not know it because they’ve been putting off physicals or routine examinations due to the pandemic, just like I delayed mine.
In fact, more than one in three adults reported delaying or forgoing health care because of coronavirus-related concerns. Every day, doctors are seeing patients who are being treated for more advanced conditions that could have been caught earlier.
So—what can we do about it? We must encourage preventive care.
It’s tough to make time to go in for a mammogram or routine health screening. So many Americans are juggling the competing demands of work, family, and their health, all while teaching their first grader how to use the mute button for Zoom calls.
But routine health checkups, exams, and follow-through are essential. By some estimates, thousands of people who missed their mammogram due to the pandemic may be living with undetected breast cancer.
Simply put, early detection saves lives. I’m grateful to have caught the cancer at an early stage and to not need chemotherapy or other treatments with negative side-effects. Since sharing my story, I’ve heard from people nationwide about their own experiences with cancer and the importance of preventive care, writing to me to say:
“I said then, and continue to say that I felt I was handed a box labeled ‘bad news,’ but when I opened it I found a bunch of smaller boxes, each one labeled ‘good news.’ I'm a poster child for early detection.”
“You have motivated me to go get my mammogram. I, too, avoided doing it due to COVID and found it so easy to skip it later, too. I’m setting it up tomorrow.”
Connecting with those across the country has been heartwarming—I’m humbled that people have felt comfortable opening up about their hardest days, tough treatment choices, and gratitude for life.
If there is one thing I have learned through this experience, it is that every day is a gift. This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, cherish that gift by putting your health first and taking advantage of preventive care services. Go schedule a doctor’s appointment—and then call your friends and cheer them on when they do the same. It just might save their lives.