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What Elizabeth Edwards wished she had done

Last week, Elizabeth Edwards died after years of struggling with breast cancer (and her husband's infidelity, but that's another subject).

What a terrible loss, I thought, and I didn't even know her, but I sure admired her. Smart, funny, courageous — and willing to give Ann Coulter a richly deserved tongue-lashing on national TV.

Two days later, I saw this AP headline from a breast cancer conference in Texas: "Half of women over 40 get annual mammograms.''

And that, mind you, is women who have insurance. Plus, this study was based on actual insurance records, not on surveys, which can suffer from respondents' poor memories or desire to provide the "right'' answer.

There has been controversy over whether most women should start screening mammograms at age 40 or 50, and whether they should be done every year or every other year. But any way you look at it, there are a lot of women rolling the dice.

I wondered what Elizabeth Edwards would have thought of all this. Thanks to Google, I didn't have to wonder for long.

In an interview with WebMD last year, she admitted that before her diagnosis she had not been doing breast self-exams or getting regular mammograms. She found her breast cancer in 2004 while showering; it was about the size of a slice of plum, she said.

"I'd like to say that I found it because I was doing a breast exam," Mrs. Edwards said. "No. I found it because it was just so friggin' large. In fact, I was thinking, 'How could I have not felt this yesterday?' "

Well, that's easy. Who among us doesn't have to rush through the shower most mornings?

A week later, Mrs. Edwards had a mammogram and ultrasound, then a biopsy confirmed cancer. Further tests found it had spread to lymph nodes. Diagnosis: Stage II breast cancer.

"I didn't get screening the way I should have," she said. "I knew better, just like they know better," she said of other women who delay mammograms.

Sounded familiar to me — just ask my doctor, who had to scold me for missing my 2009 mammogram.

Everyone's got their reasons; Mrs. Edwards' were that she was busy, mammograms are uncomfortable, and she didn't have a strong family history of the disease, so she wasn't too worried.

"The result of that is I found out later than I could have," she told WebMD. "Had I done the testing I needed to do, the treatment I would have gotten might not have been as aggressive."

And she might still be alive.

In the interview, she suggested that women team up with a friend for screening reminders.

"It never occurred to me to find a mammogram partner, but that would have been a great thing to do," she said.

"I wish I had done that."

What Elizabeth Edwards wished she had done 12/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 17, 2010 3:30am]

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