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Banner: MGH blog - minnesota monthly top doctorsHow an annual mammogram habit saved Renee Lee’s life

How an annual mammogram habit saved Renee Lee’s life

Woman diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years after her mom says she’s on a mission to encourage all women to get screened

As told by Renee Lee, a breast cancer survivor and past patient of the Park Nicollet Jane Brattain Breast Center:

I had a feeling for a long time that I would get breast cancer. As soon as my mom was diagnosed with it in January 1997 at Park Nicollet Jane Brattain Breast Center, I just knew it. Call it intuition.

My mom didn’t particularly like to go to the doctor. We had to convince her to go in for a physical and when she went, they found something on the mammogram. Several days later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and radiation, and she was given the all clear. Four years later, though, it metastasized to her lungs. After a round of chemotherapy, her cancer was deemed inactive and something she could live with for a while but not forever. She did well for 20 years having off-and-on chemotherapy.

Through all this, my mom never complained. She was always so positive and refused to dwell on her illness. She didn’t want to live her life as a sick person. She wanted to rejoice in her wellness. Even when she started to not do so well, and more chemo was necessary, she never seemed sick or felt sorry for herself.

Still, I worried all the time about getting breast cancer myself. I knew I would get it – it was just a matter of when. I religiously got my annual mammogram at Jane Brattain Breast Center. Then, 20 years to the month of my mom, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

That annual mammogram habit saved my life.

In January 2017, my mom was in hospice, and my family knew she had limited time left. I went in for my routine mammogram. I had my mammogram in the morning. I had just gotten back to work from my appointment when Jane Brattain Breast Center called. “There is something on your mammogram that we would like to look at a little closer with an ultrasound,” they said.

They got me in for an ultrasound the very next day, which I was grateful for. I was so happy to not have to wait. I have had an ultrasound done before, but this one was different, because the radiologist came in right after the ultrasound. I knew that wasn’t good. “I think we should do a biopsy,” he said.

At that point I was thinking, “How long is it going to take to get in for a biopsy?”

The radiologist assured me that they could get me in pretty quickly. And when I went out to the front desk to schedule it, I was amazed to find out that they were able to get me in that very afternoon. All I could think was, “Thank God!” The worst part about all of this is the waiting. And the wondering. And the not knowing. But Jane Brattain Breast Center made sure the wait was something I didn’t need to stress about.

I had the biopsy on Friday, and Tuesday morning, my phone rang. It was Emily, one of Jane Brattain Breast Center’s nurse navigators, telling me I had invasive lobular carcinoma, and it was very small. She walked me through my next steps and set me up with an appointment to speak with a surgeon that Friday.

In that moment, I knew two things:

  • One – The other shoe had dropped. I didn’t need to worry about getting cancer anymore because I had it.
  • And, two – Because of what my mom had gone through, I was going to have a double mastectomy.

I was prepared for treatment thanks to Park Nicollet Jane Brattain Breast Center.

After meeting with the surgeon, I knew when I was going to have surgery, who my surgeon and plastic surgeon would be, and who my oncologist was going to be. I had my plan and understood all my treatment options.

My husband and my kids took the news as well as they could. I spent a lot of time reassuring them that I was going to be OK. My father was another story. I am the oldest of six children, and we were all dealing with my mom’s health declining. He tried to be so strong, but in his softer moments, he would turn to me and say, “I need you here. You can’t leave us.” That broke my heart.

On February 8, my mother passed away. We honored her life on February 14. And three days later, I went in for a bi-lateral mastectomy with reconstruction.

Park Nicollet Jane Brattain Breast Center and all of their incredible doctors, nurses and staff have been by my side every step of the way – from my annual mammograms to my diagnosis, my surgeries and my recovery. I am so grateful to have such an incredible and lifesaving resource in my own community.

My mom has been with me throughout my recovery. I learned so much from watching her deal with her cancer over the years. After my initial shock wore off, I found myself reveling in the same hope and positivity that she had.

Cancer is not going to get me down.

I had my surgery on a Friday, and by the following Monday, I was out shopping with my sister.

I want to live and enjoy my wellness. My first grandchild was born in March, and he was such a gift and perfect timing. In May, I was recovered and able to enjoy my son and new daughter-in-law’s wedding. I’m back to strength training and doing my cardio. And, I have decided to start doing things that scare me. In August, I went flying in a 2-seater open air plane that is steered with a parachute. I did public speaking for the first time at the Park Nicollet Foundation’s annual Be Pink Fundraising Breakfast. And I am planning to go skydiving.

The way my mom handled her cancer diagnosis and lived her life has inspired me. I am the daughter of someone who died from breast cancer, but I survived it. Now as a mother and grandmother, I want the next generation to be armed with the knowledge and resources to continue to minimize the toll of breast cancer.

Going in for a mammogram can be scary. But with the support of Park Nicollet Jane Brattain Breast Center, I’m confident that women in need throughout our community will also be able to inspire their children and generations to come. I am making it my mission to spread the word and encourage every single woman in our community to get their mammograms and access the care they need.

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