A real life-saver: Fergus Falls woman is proof that breast self-exams help
Kathy Burgau is certain a breast self-exam saved her life. In September 1996, she found a lump in her breast. A few weeks later, on her 26th birthday, a biopsy confirmed the lump was a fast-growing form of cancer. Today she's 31 and has been ...
Kathy Burgau is certain a breast self-exam saved her life.
In September 1996, she found a lump in her breast. A few weeks later, on her 26th birthday, a biopsy confirmed the lump was a fast-growing form of cancer.
Today she's 31 and has been free of cancer for five years. She is an accountant and assistant to the president of Otter Tail Power Co. in Fergus Falls, Minn.
Along the path of surgery and chemotherapy, she learned a great deal about breast cancer. So last month she was upset and frustrated when the national media picked up on results of a Chinese study that concluded breast self-exams don't save lives.
American TV news shows and publications widely disseminated a boiled-down version of the study's findings. Some media outlets went so far as to tell women they no longer need bother with the monthly routine of examining their breasts.
"It was a pea-sized lump," Burgau says. "I could feel it very distinctly. I was taught breast self-exam in school and it was just something you were supposed to do. I'm a healthy person. I try to stay in shape."
From January to May 1997 she had chemotherapy every two weeks.
"I lost every piece of hair on my body," she says. "It was all very strange and hard. I had nobody to talk to because this really doesn't happen to women my age very much."
But by August 1997 she was back on the softball field.
She joined the Young Survivors Coalition, a group of young women who lived to tell their own cancer stories.
Through it, she learned she wasn't alone. In fact, in America today 250,000 women under the age of 40 have breast cancer. She says most of the young survivors say they would not have found their cancers if not for breast self-exams because women typically don't have mammograms until they're 40 or older.
"Say an 18- or 19-year-old sees a (report on the Chinese study) on TV and they think 'I don't have to do anything until I'm 40 and have a mammogram.' You just can't tell people not to do this. It's so frustrating."
At the time of her diagnosis, Kathy and her husband, Terry, had been married three years. The treatment path recommended by doctors -- surgery, chemotherapy and shutting down her hormonal system because the cancer was feeding on hormones -- forced them to wrestle with infertility questions before they were ready to talk about starting a family.
They decided they definitely wanted to have babies some day.
Her MeritCare oncologist Dr. Paul Etzell and MeritCare reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Steffen Christensen devised a plan to freeze 18 embryos for the couple before chemotherapy. The cancer-killing drugs were followed by five years of the estrogen-suppressing drug tamoxifen.
Soon, Kathy and Terry hope to initiate the process of restarting her hormonal system and implanting the embryos.
"We're saving money for the embryo implants," she says. "The medical costs at our age were a real setback."
Back in 1997, to pay the up-front costs of the embryo harvest, they emptied the savings account they'd established to buy a home and Terry sold their snowmobiles and a classic pickup he'd restored.
She estimates their out-of-pocket costs for cancer treatment and fertility measures were $40,000, plus she was too sick to work for nine months.
Today that's all in the rear-view mirror. They're only looking ahead -- and in their dreams they see a baby.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Deneen Gilmour at (701) 241-5525