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Professor urges vigilance in exams, research for cause of breast cancer

October 19, 2015
KOKOMO, Ind. — A routine breast self-exam saved Nancy Greenwood’s life.

With a family history of cancer, she’s been vigilant with her own health, having regular mammograms, and occasionally finding a lump that needed further testing.

At first, Greenwood, professor of sociology at Indiana University Kokomo, thought the thickening she found in her breast in early 2009 was worth checking, but not a big deal.

“It was just one more routine thing to do,” she said. “You have to be vigilant, because you never know when it might be cancerous. The radiologist responded differently, and I knew something was up.”

Her doctor performed a needle biopsy, and she remembers sitting in the waiting room at Unity Healthcare in Lafayette, “wondering what my fate would be.”

The news was not so good — she had invasive breast cancer. She had a choice of a lumpectomy, which would remove most of the breast, or a mastectomy, to remove all of it. She chose the mastectomy, and underwent surgery a few days later.

Now she urges women to perform self-exams regularly, and not put off mammograms.

“Even a few months makes a difference,” Greenwood said. “If I had waited six months for my regular mammogram, my cancer would have been a different beast to cure.”

Because she caught her cancer early and had a mastectomy, she did not have to undergo radiation or heavy chemotherapy. She had her surgery two weeks before spring break 2009, with colleagues covering her classes.

Since then, she has diagnostic mammograms every six months, watching to see if the cancer returns. Nearly every time, the radiologists take a closer look through a sonogram as well.

“Sometimes they do that for me,” she said. “They know I need the peace of mind knowing I am OK for now. The worst part about getting breast cancer is that it is a chronic issue. You do worry that it might come back.”

Her oncologist tells her it is unlikely her cancer will come back, but there is a 50 percent chance she could get it in her other breast.

Greenwood supports research for a cure, but also says there is an urgent need to find out what causes cancers, focusing on prevention where possible. This kind of long-term study is difficult in the academic environment, because it doesn’t lend itself to the regular publishing required by faculty. It also doesn’t promise the monetary gain sought by the pharmaceutical industry.

“One of seven women will get breast cancer, and we’re not doing the research to find out why,” she said. “We need more research on why. Is it diet? Exercise? Genetics? We need to know.”

She’s researched in her own family, and found a long history of breast and prostate cancer among her relatives.

“It’s a terrible legacy to leave to your children.”

Greenwood chose to keep the news private, sharing only with a few close friends. She appreciated the support of those close to her, as well as her daughter and husband.

“Six years out, I’m feeling more confident it won’t return,” she said. “I’m more willing to talk to people about it. Everybody deals with it a little differently, and that’s OK.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 10/20/2015