There are numerous reasons why women don’t get their annual screening mammograms starting at 40 — the absence of a family history of breast cancer, they think they’re generally in good health or they are simply scared of the unknown. Tara Sparks, a mother of three and a wife for 23 years, didn’t think that a routine screening for breast cancer was something that could benefit her. But, that was before a surprising life twist and some amazing community support. Today, she’s proud to be both an advocate for screening mammography and a breast cancer survivor.
Just a month after her 42nd birthday, Tara unexpectedly found a hard lump in her left breast. Having recently lost 80 pounds, her breasts were smaller and she was able to more easily detect the lump. Tara immediately contacted her primary physician and was referred to the Wake Radiology North Hills Breast Center off of Six Forks Road in Raleigh.
Since a palpable lump was found, Tara received a diagnostic mammogram instead of a screening mammogram. A diagnostic mammogram is different from a screening exam. A screening mammogram simply looks for signs of cancer and is typically done annually on women who have no breast symptoms. A diagnostic mammogram is done when something is abnormal or difficult to determine. Images are reviewed by a radiologist during the exam in case additional images or angles of the breast are needed.
This was Tara’s first mammogram and, like many women, she was nervous and had heard “horror stories” about having the exam. “I honestly didn’t even feel like my breast was squished. The technologist told me exactly what was going to happen so there weren’t any surprises. It was nothing like I had heard,” Tara explained. “I was nervous and she was totally calm. Truly, my technologist was great.”
Following her diagnostic mammogram, Tara also had a breast ultrasound and a biopsy to determine if her lump was breast cancer. “Everyone at the office was phenomenal,” said Tara, “They really make you feel welcome and work hard to put you at ease. Having all those tests can be scary, so I encourage women not to be afraid to ask someone to join them during their exam if they need an extra hand to hold.”
On November 23, 2015, Dr. Kerry Chandler, breast imaging radiologist at Wake Radiology, confirmed Tara had Stage 1 invasive breast cancer. Tara’s diagnosis knocked her off of her feet, especially because she didn’t have health insurance. She had to quickly consider how she was going to pay for the treatment needed to beat this life-altering disease.
Dr. Richard Max, breast imaging radiologist at Wake Radiology, heard about Tara’s situation and helped put her in contact with the Pretty In Pink Foundation. This organization helps individuals who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and have limited or no health insurance. Pretty In Pink helped Tara receive a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
“I couldn’t have gotten through this time without Dr. Max connecting me with the great people at Pretty In Pink. Being able to have both of my surgeries was the greatest Christmas gift I could have ever received. I honestly owe my life to Dr. Chandler, Dr. Max, Dr. Lisa Tolnitch and Dr. Rhett High.”
In May 2016, Tara finished her sixth and final round of chemotherapy. She hopes her story will encourage women to receive annual mammograms starting at the age of 40. “I didn’t really think much about getting a mammogram when I turned 40. Now, I want everyone to think about it. I tell women ‘know your body and check yourself every month,’” said Tara.
“You’ll know when you feel something out of the ordinary. You’ll know it’s not supposed to be there. Breast cancer doesn’t care if you’re young or old, tall or short, insured or not. If you find something, get with your doctor and get checked out.”
Since her diagnosis, Tara has volunteered with Pretty In Pink’s “Pink Ribbon Ride” and plans to continue as much volunteer work with breast cancer organizations as she can.
At Wake Radiology, we agree with Tara and encourage all women 40 and over to consider having a screening mammogram every year. You can request a mammogram appointment online or call our scheduling team at 919-232-4700. As the Triangle leader in 3D mammography, we have installed 10 3D mammogram units at various offices throughout the greater Raleigh area. Learn more about this revolutionary breast imaging technology to know if a 3D screening is the right mammogram for you.