Tuesday night’s episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was a reminder to all women: the best way to prevent breast cancer—or at least prevent being diagnosed with a later-stage, far-more-difficult-to-treat breast cancer—is to stay on top of your mammograms.
In the episode, Real Housewives star Kyle Richards, who is 50 years old, opened up on camera about being afraid of what her mammogram might find. She shared that her own mother, Kathleen Richards, died of breast cancer in 2002. And with the hereditary nature of breast cancer, Richards feared she might learn she had the disease, too.READ MORE
Real Housewife Lisa Rinna, who is 55, joined Richards as the two headed to the doctor to get their mammograms done on-camera. While Rinna was told fairly quickly that her breasts were perfectly healthy, Richards was told she would need to go in for some additional imaging tests—which made her even more fearful.
Luckily, the imaging tests revealed that Richards did not have any reason to worry.
“It’s O.K. You’re clear,” Rinna told Richards after the scare. Richards was emotional after the experience as she reflected on her mother’s death.
“The fact that she hadn’t had a mammogram in 5 years haunts me,” she tweeted out to her followers the evening after the episode aired. “I really wanted to show this to bring awareness re: early detection and as a reminder to get checked.”
I lost my Mom to Breast cancer in 2002. The fact that she hadn’t had a mammogram in 5 years haunts me. I really wanted to show this to bring awareness re early detection and as a reminder to get checked #rhobh
— Kyle Richards (@KyleRichards) May 29, 2019
Experts across the breast cancer continuum have echoed Richards’ words time and again.
“One of the most frustrating things that I see in my office and in my practice is when patients come in with huge, golf ball breast cancers that could have probably been diagnosed at an earlier age if they were receiving annual screening mammograms,” Dr. Dr. Senayet Agonafer, radiologist at Montefiore Medical Center, told SurvivorNet. “These are the deaths that we want to prevent—cancers that can be diagnosed very easily on a mammogram.”
Currently, the American College of Radiology guidelines recommend that women begin getting annual mammograms at age 40. This should continue until after menopause—around age 55—at which time some experts say women can cut back to every other year. And a small number of women with especially high risk factors may benefit from beginning annual mammography earlier, around age 30 instead of 40.
Some women who go in for a mammogram may be told the same thing Richards was told: that they need further screening. Most of this time, this further testing is needed because a woman has dense breasts.
“For patients who have dense breasts, which means that there is more breast tissue on the mammogram than there is fat, we actually also recommend screening with ultrasound,” Dr. Agonafer said. “The reason being that mammography is about 15 to 20 percent less sensitive in patients with dense breasts.”
Dr. Connie Lehman, Chief of the Breast Imaging Division at Massachusetts General Hospital, explained the actual reason behind the lower sensitivity: “The dense structures block the X-ray, so that looks white,” she said. “Unfortunately, cancers also block the X-ray, and so cancers also look white. When you have a white cancer hiding in white breast tissue, it can be missed.”
Dr. Lehmen suggested that women who are told they have dense breasts (by a doctor, that is—there’s no way to tell just by feeling your breasts) seek out newer technologies for their screening, like digital mammograms or 3D mammograms.
“Digital mammography significantly improves the quality of the mammogram,” she said. “And [3D mammograms] allow us to find more cancers and to significantly reduce our false-positive rate.”
The fact that Richards’ tweet about her on-camera mammogram and her mothers’ preventable cancer death received over 5,000 likes and nearly 400 comments in three days is a reminder that breast cancer affects everyone—and that the importance of staying on top of your screening tests cannot be overstated.
In the outpouring of support, many of Richards’ fans shared their own breast cancer stories, strengthening that reminder further yet.
One of her fans’ tweets spoke specifically to the importance of getting a mammogram every single year.
“Diagnosed Triple Negative Stage 3C,” she wrote. “And had had a clear 3D mammogram not even a year before. 3D mammograms save lives!!”
Diagnosed Triple Negative Stage 3C and had had a clear 3D mammogram not even a year before. 3D mammograms save lives!!????
— klj (@LynJames1) May 29, 2019
Breast cancer can only sneak up on you if you let it. This week—and every week—take a page from the Real Housewives’ book and stay on top of your mammograms.