JUST DO IT: Local breast cancer survivors encourage women to schedule routine screenings

Amy Kirkpatrick works out at Hancock Wellness Center with fitness supervisor Cory Hisle. Kirkpatrick credits early detection for her successful treatment for breast cancer. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

HANCOCK COUNTY — The year 2020 came crashing down for Amy Kirkpatrick earlier than it did the rest of the world.

One morning in late February, her phone rang the day after she got a routine mammogram. The doctor had seen something in her scan, and was calling her back in for a closer look.

“I knew something was wrong the second the phone rang,” said Kirkpatrick, 47, who works at Hancock Regional Hospital, the same place she had the test done.

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Two of her friends knew about the callback and showed up at the appointment, but Kirkpatrick opted to go in for the ultrasound by herself. The news she got wasn’t good: The milk ducts of her left breast had signs of cancer, which thankfully hadn’t spread into the breast tissue.

Her doctor scheduled four biopsies, and eventually delivered the news that she needed a mastectomy.

Kirkpatrick tried to act strong in front of her friends, but she went home and cried her eyes out.

Five years prior, she had been a vision of health, healthy enough to donate one of her kidneys to a close friend, Julie Zell, who she met back when their teenagers were in preschool.

“I found out I needed a mastectomy five years to the day I gave my kidney away,” she recalled.

To celebrate the kidney donation milestone, she and Zell were scheduled to go on a cruise on April 27.

Instead, Kirkpatrick spent the day laid out on a operating room table, undergoing a surgery that would remove her left breast tissue and insert a permanent implant.

Now, six months after her surgery, Kirkpatrick is feeling good, embracing her role as a single mother to three kids, community volunteer and administrative assistant for the Hancock Health Foundation.

She takes any chance she gets to encourage other women to get their annual mammograms done without delay.

“I had no idea anything was wrong, so if I had put off my screening and then COVID hit, things may have been much more advanced when I finally got the screening done,” she said.

“You want to get all your necessary screenings done — your mammograms, your colonoscopies, everything — to find out as soon as possible if things aren’t OK. That’s why we have those things,” she said.

Connie Schmidt steadfastly agrees.

On the Friday before Labor Day in 2017, she took some time off from work to get her yearly mammogram done at the same place Kirkpatrick had her screening, at the James T. Anderson Center for Women’s Health on the first floor of Hancock Regional Hospital in Greenfield.

She immediately got a callback and returned for an ultrasound the Tuesday after Labor Day.

“After the test, the technician came in the room and asked if anyone was there with me,” recalled Schmidt, who had come alone, thinking it was just a routine callback.

What happened next felt like a blur. The technician called Schmidt’s husband, Gary, who hopped in his car to make the 40-minute drive to the hospital from his office in Fishers. Within those 40 minutes, the technician never left Schmidt’s side.

“That’s what I remember, is that she never left me alone,” said Schmidt, 64, who underwent a biopsy before her husband arrived. When he arrived, they were given the news no couple wants to hear — Schmidt had Stage 2 cancer in her left breast.

She underwent more biopsies before a mastectomy was scheduled for Dec. 8, when doctors removed her left breast and three lymph nodes, one of which was cancerous. The cancerous lymph node meant Schmidt would undergo radiation after surgery. Her treatment wrapped up in late February 2018.

Both Schmidt and Kirkpatrick believe they might not be here today if it weren’t for early detection.

“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about it,” said Schmidt, who is doing well three years after her initial diagnosis.

Both she and Kirkpatrick, both of Greenfield, opted for reconstructive surgery following their mastectomies.

Neither of them had a history of breast cancer in their families.

“Ninety percent of breast cancer is not inherited,” said Becky Pohland, clinic coordinator at Andis Women’s Clinic at Hancock Regional Hospital. “That’s why it’s so important for all women to stay on top of their annual mammograms, because the majority of people who get breast cancer have no family history.”

She and Debbie Muegge, lead digital mammographer at the center, spend their days walking women through various types of testing and sharing the importance of early detection.

Most health organizations encourage women to start having annual mammograms by age 40, others at age 45, Muegge said, but those with a family history should start at age 30.

Most insurance companies cover the yearly screenings at the appropriate age, and many now cover the cost of 3D mammograms, which give doctors a much more detailed look at breast tissue.

Pohland, who is also a breast cancer survivor, also advocates for women to do monthly self breast exams, although some health organizations say they’re not necessary.

“Personally, I don’t see how it could hurt, she said. “The main thing is women should have breast self-awareness, so they recognize when something looks or feels different.”

Muegge understands that some women are anxious at the thought of having a mammogram, but said technicians are skilled at putting patients at ease.

Pohland said the five-year survival rate for breast cancer with early detection is 93% to 99%, but it falls to 86% once the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes and 27% once cancer has spread beyond that.

“Not scheduling a mammogram now can allow breast cancers to advance, becoming less treatable and more deadly,” said Muegge, who encourages those who are overdue for testing to schedule an appointment as soon as possible.

To find out more or to schedule an appointment at the James T. Anderson Center for Women’s Health, call 317-468-4600 or visit HancockRegional Hospital.org.

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To find out more or to schedule an appointment at the James T. Anderson Center for Women’s Health and/or the Andis Women’s Clinic, call 317-468-4600 or visit HancockRegionalHospital.org.