Marisa Wachhorst was diagnosed with breast cancer one month after her 40th birthday.
I feel grateful that I'm alive, but it’s more than that.
Because her mother had died of the disease at the age of 54, she was not completely surprised by the results of the screening, but frightened nonetheless.
"My mother was diagnosed at the age of 44,” Wachhorst says. "My friends had been telling me to go get a mammogram for years, but I was pregnant in my late 30s. And I was afraid to go in because my mother and I were alike in many ways.”
That first mammogram led to an additional ultrasound screening that revealed the 8-millimeter tumor before it was even large enough to feel.
"Dr. Borofsky saved my life with that test, which was done because of my family history," Wachhorst says. "I think it would have been a lot worse if I had waited."
"Marisa's story is not unique," says Harriet Borofsky, M.D., medical director of breast imaging at Mills-Peninsula's Women's Center. "Breast cancer is not a trivial disease for women in their 40s."
Of all breast cancers diagnosed at Mills-Peninsula last year, 18 percent were in women between the ages of 40 and 49, Dr. Borofsky notes. Most of those cancers were found at early stages when the chances of survival and treatment options are greater.
"For reasons that are as yet a mystery, women in their 40s and 50s tend to have more aggressive tumors, which makes screening in those years even more important," Dr. Borofsky says.
That's why many medical professionals including Dr. Borofsky are urging women and doctors to ignore a government panel’s recent recommendation to forego regular mammograms until age 50.
"Our past two decades of developing mammography screening programs has resulted in a decline in death due to breast cancer among all age groups," Dr. Borofsky says. "We've also been able to offer women more treatment options due to early detection."
Wachhorst agrees that progress has been made both medically and socially since her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Then, you couldn't even go shopping for a bra if you had breast cancer. Women of my mother's generation kept it a secret."
But Wachhorst is speaking up. "I feel grateful that I'm alive, but it's more than that," she says. "I don’t want to just survive; I want to make a difference. I think most women these days feel this way."
That's why she doesn’t hide anything from her own children. "I have two daughters, and I want them to know what cancer is, learn about it, and realize that it’s not the end."