Mae Sandberg is the author of today’s post. Mae is Montage’s Senior Manager of Community Engagement. She is also a proud mother, wife, daughter, aunt, life-long learner, and loving advocate and ally for marginalized communities. Fondly nicknamed Mama Mae by her colleagues, Mae is a caring and compassionate connecter who creates opportunities for team togetherness internally and builds relationships with partners externally to advance health equity.
Earlier this year, Mae was diagnosed with Stage One Invasive Ductal and Lobular Breast Cancer. She had a double mastectomy this week as part of her treatment. Ever the positive force, Mae wanted to take advantage of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month to share her story, provide helping resources, and encourage all women to access preventive care and advocate for their health. Please read and join us in cheering on Mae’s recovery.
Mae also created a short presentation to provide additional information and share breast cancer resources. In it, you can also learn how the All of Us Research Program, which Mae supports through her work at Montage, is supporting breast cancer research. Find her presentation here.
In August of this year, at the age of 44, I had my 9th mammogram. I was scared. But unlike most women in their early forties, this wasn’t a new experience. I had my first baseline mammogram 20 years prior when my OBGYN agreed there was a suspicious lump in my right breast.
After an inconclusive ultrasound at that time, I was referred for my mammogram. Even then it was hard to discern what was happening. As a Jewish Mexican-American woman, my breast tissue is dense. An MRI confirmed benign calcifications, but I was asked to return for a mammogram every year to see if any changes occurred. I did, and changes have occurred.
In February of 2023, my left breast began to show extra activity. Doctors asked me to return six months later. Distracted with the joy of planning our daughter’s Quinceañera, I didn’t let the possibilities weigh on me. But in August, after a core biopsy and 48 hours of anxiety, I received the results from pathology: I had cancer, the big C word. The initial diagnosis was Stage One Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I was frozen in anger and fear.
Within 24 hours, I was having a family meeting with my surgeon. We discussed what this meant, what we knew so far, and what more we needed to find out. In that meeting, I declared I was ready to go to the nearest operating room, have surgery, and offer my breast tissue for research. My passion was met with support, but we still needed to know more.
‘More’ meant information gathering that included seven more biopsies—some in my Lymph nodes and two more in my breast. An MRI during this discovery phase revealed I also had Stage One Lobular Carcinoma. It is a rarity to have two types of cancer but not an impossibility. Genetic testing, an MRI, a CT scan, 5 titanium markers placed in my breasts to mark cancerous and benign sites for surgery, a visit to the ER, bloodwork, a tearful telehealth visit with a social worker, an X-ray, a visit with a reconstructive plastic surgeon, an EKG, and my first therapist appointment followed, all leading to my double mastectomy scheduled on Wednesday, October 25th, 2023.
It’s been a whirlwind. But through it all, I am grateful. I have cancer, and I am grateful.
I am grateful that 20 years ago my OBGYN didn’t dismiss my concerns because I was “too young for a mammogram.” I am grateful for the care teams that have worked with me over the years to follow up on any changes that naturally or abnormally occurred in my body. I am grateful to the radiologist who marked my mammogram for further testing, even though I was angry at first. I thank this person for following their calling, going to school to read these black and white images, and noting the smallest of areas that looked like microscopic confetti for biopsies. This tech may have saved my life. I am grateful for all the progress made in breast cancer research and treatment. And I am so grateful to my family and friends, my work family also, for their support while I processed this very heavy reality.
I didn’t arrive at gratitude gracefully. I was first angry, desperate, and frightened. I am human, and I had to extend myself grace and process this news while simultaneously keeping “my chin up”. But now, I am grateful. And most importantly, I am ready to face my double mastectomy with nervousness but no fear. I am ready to roll up my sleeves and fight my greatest fight.
I know that my options and odds are favorable (as favorable as cancer odds can be) because of early detection. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Men are also diagnosed and treated. The likelihood that we know someone with breast cancer is higher than most other cancers. Because of this, much research has gone into educating doctors and the community at large to advocate for their health and early detection. Thank goodness.
I encourage you to do so, too. Please, please be your own advocate and ask for a baseline mammogram no matter what your age. I have been in doctor’s waiting rooms with men and women in their 20s battling this, and while I do not mean to provide medical advice, I do empower each person reading this to ask for and sometimes fight for earlier detection. If your primary care provider does not support a baseline mammogram, please visit https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/about-breast-cancer/early-detection/breast-cancer-resources/ for free or low-cost mammograms in your area and more information and resources about breast cancer.
There was once a time when mastectomies were barbaric, leaving women with emotional, psychological, and physical scars. The was once a time when insurance didn’t cover genetic testing and reconstructive surgery. I am the answered prayers of early pioneers in breast cancer research, and I am supported, grateful, and ready.