Hamilton resident Sharon Cole is very passionate about getting a yearly mammogram.
She is a two-time breast cancer survivor.
“My cancer never would have been found without a mammogram. There was no lump that I could feel or that the doctor could feel,” Cole said. “Both of my cancers were only found on the mammogram.”
Before discovering breast cancer, Cole described herself as moderately faithful about yearly checks.
“You know how it is,” she said. “You’ve never had cancer so you go have your mammogram done. Then in a year they send a notice that it’s time to have another mammogram, so call them. I’d wait a month or two or three even before I called. Not any more. When I get my notice I call immediately and get scheduled for a mammogram.”
Cole’s first cancer diagnosis came in 2000. She said she was practical about it.
“Once you find it you do what you need to do to cause it to go away and this time it’s staying away,” she said. “I just know I have cancer. Now let’s do what we need to do, go see your oncologist, talk about it, progress through the treatment and get on with your life.”
Cole said the process was a biopsy, lymph node test, surgery to remove the lump then chemotherapy and radiation.
“It is an individualized treatment,” Cole said. “I just had to have four treatments of chemo and eight weeks of radiation. Chemo has side effects: loss of feeling in fingertips, you lose your hair. The radiation was five days a week for how many weeks they say it should be. It is what you need, an individualized treatment.”
Cole said keeping a positive attitude helped immensely.
“You can be devastated or you can say ‘OK, this is where we are’ and be done with it and have fun with wigs, hats, scarves or whatever,” she said. “I had a hot pink wig but sometimes I just went bald. At home, I didn’t wear anything and sometimes I’d forget and just walk out the door like that.”
Cole’s second cancer diagnosis came in 2012, again found only by mammogram.
“I can’t say for sure it was stage two but the first time there were no signs in my lymph nodes and there were one or two in my lymph nodes,” she said. “If I had put off like I used to do that wouldn’t have been a good thing. In less than a year, I progressed to stage two.”
Cole said her second diagnosis seemed unfair.
“I have to admit the second time I was a little angry,” she said. “The first time it was like ‘OK’ everybody says ‘why me,’ but why not me? The next time I was like ‘wait a minute I’ve already done this I shouldn’t have to do it again.’ It didn’t keep me from doing the treatment that I needed and getting over that. My attitude was ‘I’m just going to do it and get it over with.’ I had good support from my family.”
Her family now includes her granddaughter, Katee Kostecki, born in 2003.
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Katee Kostecki, now 13, said she remembers her grandmother’s fight against breast cancer and the time her grandmother shaved her head and wore a green wig, the team color, to her soccer game.
“I was scared at first that she was going to shave her head,” she said. “I remember my dad saying he was going to shave his head to just to be with grandma, but he never did.”
Kostecki said she remembers the trips to Missoula for her grandma’s radiation treatments.
“I didn’t understand that breast cancer might kill her,” she said. “I’m surprised that I didn’t understand it but I remember my mom talking that it was just stage one and ‘grandma is going to be fine.’ Now that I understand, I want to say it’s nice to have her.
“It would be a lot different without her. It would be weird and strange.”
Kostecki said she would tell her friends with moms and grandmas to get their mammograms.
“Make sure you get it,” she said. “So many people that could have survived didn’t because they were being lazy, I guess. That’s really sucky. It’s better to catch it early and be confident that you’ll be fine.”
Cole echoes those sentiments and finds excuses irritating.
“I’ll tell you one thing is when they say ‘oh, you don’t have to have a mammogram every year.’ Excuse me, oh, yes you do otherwise it could be missed until it becomes a death sentence,” Cole said. “Also, it’s out there ‘mash and smash’ and ‘it’s painful’ and blah, blah, blah. It is uncomfortable not painful and what is a little discomfort?”
Cole said the actual time of a mammogram is less than a minute and the new 3-D imaging machines seem easier and do a better job.
“I have to tell you all of the mammographers are so gentle, so careful, so kind and they make it as easy for you as possible,” she said. “They become your close friend because they’ve been close.”
Cole said there is no excuse especially in Ravalli County.
“If you don’t have any money or insurance there is the Aid for Mammography Fund, so there is no reason not to get a mammogram,” she said. “It is not charity. It’s a gift. Make a date with your mammographer and if you’re a child tell your mother to get in there, if you’re a husband tell your wife to get in there and get her mammogram. There is no reason not to catch breast cancer early and the earlier the better.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and there are many Sprinkle Pink events planned: a window contest, raffles, bake sales, fitness events, in-store specials by participating merchants and events at valley schools. The Stevensville Association has a “Bling-A-Bra” competition and the Hamilton Downtown Association has a “Save Your Date” campaign with fabulous prizes for getting a mammogram in October or making a mammogram appointment.
For more information about Sprinkle Pink visit www.mdmh.org.