BILLINGS – As Breast Cancer Awareness month comes to an end, two local women are sharing their experience with the importance of early screenings and detection.
“It’s not something I don’t think anybody really imagines they’ll ever get cancer. I think that’s a hard thing because it’s something that happens to other people until it happens to you,” said Becky Owens, 41, and a patient at St. Vincent Healthcare.
“You think of getting a cancer diagnosis, it’s something that happens to other people, and it’s scary,” said Kim Lefever, 44, who is also receiving care at St. Vincent Healthcare.
Owens and Lefever are complete strangers, both in their 40s and giving the upper hand to breast cancer thanks to early detection.
“I didn’t have any symptoms, I didn’t have any reason to be suspicious. My primary care physician Dr. Malody recommended I do a screening once I turn 40. And that’s how I found out,” Owens said.
Owens, a wife and mother to two boys, was diagnosed in March of 2021 when she was 40.
According to the website Cancer.gov, women in their 30s have a 1 in 204 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer. The chances greatly increase when they reach their 40s to 1 in 65.
“When I went in for mine, it was a shock because I didn’t have any symptoms and I couldn’t feel a lump and I don’t think I would’ve been able to feel a lump for a long time,” Lefever said.
That shock came to Lefever last year when she was 43.
The wife and mother of five has been going in for her mammogram every year since she was 40.
“The fact that I went in when I did, it changed everything for me. My treatment was easier because I went in,” Lefever said.
Lefever was able to skip chemotherapy and opted to have a double mastectomy. It’s something she always told herself she would do if she was ever diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I have five kids and whenever you have five kids, you don’t play around. I didn’t want to mess with it, I wanted the cancer out and immediately,” Lefever said.
Making an appointment to be screened without any symptoms can be a lifesaver.
According to The Society of Breast Imaging, annual screening starting at the age of 40 saves approximately 6,500 more women’s lives each year in the U.S., than screening every other year starting at 50.
“In the last 10 days here at the center, we’ve diagnosed 10 people with breast cancer, three of them were under 45 years old. And I think to myself, what would happen if they didn’t start their mammogram at 40, if those ladies wouldn’t have came in, their diagnosis would’ve been completely different. So if we can intervene early, that is the best offense,” said Ella Dugan-Laemmle, Breast Health Navigator and psychotherapist for breast cancer patients at St. Vincent Healthcare.
In the field for more than 30 years, Dugan-Laemmle has witnessed the ways breast cancer impacts every life, but especially women in their 40s.
Unfortunately, it’s only becoming more common.
“We don’t really know why,” said Dr. Kalie Adler, radiologist and breast imaging specialist at St. Vincent Healthcare.
According to Dr. Adler, the incidence of women diagnosed with breast cancer in their 40s increases about half a percent a year.
“But we know some risk factors for breast cancer. Certain things like obesity, alcohol, smoking, family history, genetics, those kinds of things we do know. But there’s still a lot of things we don’t know. Is there something environmental? Those are things researchers are still trying to figure out,” Dr. Adler said.
Owens was diagnosed with three cancers.
She had a mastectomy after the discovery of the first two.
“If we hadn’t done the mammogram, and then were tipped off by the other two cancers, the third type usually isn’t found until it has metastasized throughout the body. It’s pretty aggressive and doesn’t usually show up as a lump or an early indicator, so the screening was essential to catching it,” Owens said.
She finished her latest round of chemotherapy three months ago. She’s still going through infusions and will be on hormone medication for another five to 10 years.
Through her journey, Owens has instilled some newfound wisdom.
“I think more than ever, I have to accept that change is inevitable and that it’s better to go with the things that you can’t control, than try to resist. Cancer treatment changes everything long term, and so learning to adapt and let go of what I thought life would be, and be ok with whatever it is,” Owens said.
This story is part of special coverage on Montana this Morning for Pink Week.
The intention of Pink Week is to encourage women to conduct monthly self-exams, schedule annual mammograms, and listen to their bodies.