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Denise Geiwitz

How a mammogram saved Denise's life

June 1, 2013, started like any normal day for Denise Geiwitz, a wife of 17 years, mother of two and art teacher in the Sparta School District. The Geiwitz family headed off to school with summer vacation in close sight.

But their commute home was anything but typical. Denise received a phone call from Jeannette Gasal Spilde, MD, a Gundersen Health System radiologist who sub-specializes in breast care. She explained, "Denise, bad news. Among the calcifications in your right breast, we found cancer..."

At just 42 years of age, Denise was blindsided by the news. "I've always stayed on top of my health by exercising and eating right. I've never smoked. It was just shocking to hear the words breast cancer," she says. The news left her family and friends asking, "You, of all people?"

But the reality is one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. That's why Gundersen Health System recommends annual screening mammograms and clinical breast exams starting at age 40.

"A screening mammogram can detect breast cancer in its earliest, most treatable stage—an average of one to three years before a woman can feel a lump. Early detection means a head start on life-saving treatment," according to breast surgeon Jared Linebarger, MD. "Women should not forget about clinical breast exams and monthly breast self-exams," he adds. "In rare cases, a lump can be felt before a mammogram detects it. All three screening tools are essential."

Denise is forever grateful for the extra nudge from her Family Medicine physician to get her first mammogram at age 40. "I don't think anyone looks forward to getting a mammogram, but it's a quick, easy screening. And, it saved my life," she says.

Despite her diagnosis, Denise and her husband breathed a sigh of relief for two reasons: the cancer (stage IA invasive ductal carcinoma) was detected before it spread to her lymph nodes, and a team of specialists from Gundersen's Norma J. Vinger Center for Breast Care had a treatment plan in place just days after diagnosis.

"I was amazed with the entire Center for Breast Care staff. Cancer was so foreign to me, but they answered my questions and eased my mind. They care about you." Denise continues, "There is a connection with the people at Gundersen. You're not a number. You're a person with a story."

Because there had been much talk about breast cancer in Denise's family, she was confident from a young age that she would opt for a bi-lateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery if the occasion presented itself. "It's such a personal choice, but I didn't want to worry about the cancer coming back," she says. As a wife, mother and teacher with so much left to experience in life, it's a choice she'll never regret.

If you take away one important lesson from Denise's story, she says, "Schedule your annual mammogram. I know that making the phone call and taking time away from work and family can be hard to do. Sometimes, you have to put yourself first if you want to be here for the ones you love," she says.

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