Leah...

Mammograms and self-breast exams help save lives…just ask Dr. Leah Dietrich.

I care for patients at Gundersen’s Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders, and know how critical it can be to catch cancer in its earliest stages. With a family history of breast cancer, I’ve always been very good about going in for mammograms since age 35 and doing regular self-exams.

In May 2011, I noticed a lump on my breast. Like I often advise my patients, ‘Wait one menstrual cycle to see if you notice any changes.’ But three weeks later, the lump was still there. It finally dawned on me, ‘What am I doing sitting and waiting? This could be breast cancer!’

The following Monday, feeling a bit apprehensive, I called the breast cancer nurse navigators in the Norma J. Vinger Center for Breast Care to schedule an evaluation. Richard Ellis, MD, performed an exam, mammogram and ultrasound but didn’t see anything too suspicious. To be certain, he did a biopsy. That’s when I received the news that would change my life forever—I had breast cancer at age 43.

‘Cancer…I have a wonderful husband and two young daughters. I take care of breast cancer patients every day. How can this be happening to me?’ Nothing can prepare you for news like that—not even being a medical oncologist who specializes in breast cancer.

I went through a whirlwind of tests and emotions. I’ll never forget when my 10-year-old daughter asked, “Mom, are you going to die?” Though my cancer was more invasive and aggressive than originally thought, I felt confident about being treated at Gundersen. With a knowledgeable and compassionate team by my side, I knew I was in the right place—but this time, as a patient.

Deciding on treatment was the next challenge. Together with surgeon Jeffrey Landercasper, MD, and medical oncologist Alcee Jumonville, MD, we worked on a treatment plan. I underwent a bi-lateral mastectomy and six chemotherapy treatments over 14 weeks. To be honest, my memories during that time are kind of a blur. But what I do know is how very important my care team, family and friends were. 

No one wants to have cancer but you have to look at the silver lining. The relationship with my husband, my daughters, girlfriends, patients, colleagues—everything has been strengthened by this. Cancer connected me with people in ways I hadn’t been connected before. Though returning to work was difficult, there is a new level of assurance and admiration when I tell my patients, “I know what you’re going through.”

Every day, I’m thankful the cancer was found early. If I had put off that appointment for a couple more months, it could have been a much different story. No one thinks cancer is going to happen to them. That’s why I urge you to do self-breast exams and have yearly mammograms. If you find a suspicious lump, have it checked out. That way, when your children ask, ‘Mom, are you going to die?’ you can confidently say, “No, the cancer was found early.”

Leah Dietrich, MD, Medical Oncology

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