Debbie Christ was good about scheduling her mammograms. In 2014, at age 49, she was too busy with the holiday season to arrange her annual screening, but when she finally called the Fortunato Breast Health Center at Mather Hospital in February, “they had just gotten off the phone with someone who cancelled, and they could fit me in first thing the next morning. It was perfect timing,” said the Port Jefferson mother of four.
After her mammogram and a sonogram, Debbie was asked to wait in the exam room. “That’s when I got nervous. I didn’t think that was a good sign,” she said. A few minutes later, breast radiologist Michelle Price, MD, and nurse Stephanie Crispino, RN, came into the room and explained to her that they had seen a mass on her images. It looked like it could be malignant, they said. She would need a biopsy.
“Dr. Price and Stephanie were very calm and kind and asked me if I wanted to go home and talk to my family before I had the biopsy,” Debbie remembered. “But I’m a ‘let’s get things done now’ kind of person, so I asked if they could perform the biopsy right then. I had Stephanie next to me the whole time, holding my hand.”
She got the diagnosis the next day: She had aggressive breast cancer. Her first thought was of her children — she wanted to be there in the morning when they left for school, drive them to their activities and cook them meals. “A thought that kept coming to mind was, ‘will I get to see my kids graduate?’ The staff at the Breast Center reassured me the whole time. They just kept telling me over and over that I would be ok.”
The Breast Center’s navigation program guided Debbie through her treatment. “It was like following a recipe. Everything was methodically laid out for me. I just had to follow the plan,” she said. Eventually that treatment plan included three surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and continuing hormonal therapy, and Debbie is thankful for every bit of it. Tests show no sign of disease, and she knows she is fortunate.
“My cancer was caught just in time. It was angry, aggressive and on its way to other places,” said Debbie. “I think, what if I put off my appointment for another few months? Things could have been a lot worse for me.”
Her experience had made her a powerful advocate for early detection. “When I was diagnosed, so many kind women asked how they could help me. My response was always, ‘Go get screened. A casserole is lovely, but what I really need is for you to go get a mammogram. That would make me feel better.’”
For those who are nervous or worried that mammography will be painful, Debbie’s response is, “Please, just go. In the grand scheme of things, a few minutes of being a little uncomfortable every year is worth it for the peace of mind that comes with hearing that you’re ok. Every time I’m told that everything looks good, I say to myself, ‘Deb, you’ve been given more time, now go make it count!’”
Regular mammograms offer the best chance of detecting breast cancer early, when it’s most treatable. If you’re uninsured or underinsured, resources are available for free or discounted screenings through the Suffolk County Cancer Services program. Call (631) 584-6320 for more information.