Hillary Ward readily admits she often puts her clients’ needs before her own. As a real estate agent, she’s used to accommodating the busy schedules of everyone else – adjusting her day to meet prospective buyers at the hottest new listing or fitting in a home inspection, even on her day off.
But something compelled Hillary to put her needs first when she registered – via Facebook – for a free breast cancer screening through the See, Test & Treat program at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor. Funded by a grant from the CAP Foundation, See, Test & Treat allows uninsured or under-insured women to receive free cervical and breast cancer screening with same-day results.
Hillary has no family history of cancer. But knowing she was about 10 years behind in receiving her first mammogram, she signed up for a 10:30 a.m. appointment on April 22.
“I had some clients who wanted to have their home inspection on that day, but I just – for some reason – stuck to my schedule, which is a little out of the ordinary for me,” Hillary said.
As an uninsured woman over the age of 40, Hillary figured she had nothing to lose. Little did she know, she had everything to gain.
When Hillary arrived at St. Joe’s Ann Arbor the morning of April 22, she was impressed at how well organized the event was. She received her mammogram, and also had her blood sugar tested. Hillary was told her mammogram showed an abnormality, and was scheduled to return for diagnostic imaging, which detected early stage breast cancer.
“They caught it very early, and it had not spread to my lymph nodes,” Hillary said.
She received a lumpectomy on May 11, followed by six weeks of radiation. The prognosis for Hillary is positive. She will need to remain on Tamoxifen, an estrogen modulator, and regularly follow up with her radiation and medical oncologists, as well as her primary care physician.
Hillary says October holds new meaning for her now. She attended Washtenaw County’s Making Strides for Breast Cancer event on Oct. 14, with her husband by her side, and had the honor of cutting the pink ribbon to mark the official start of the race.
She even wore a bright pink t-shirt. Her husband wore a pink cap in solidarity.
“Pink isn’t a color I’d normally gravitate towards, but I’m a convert,” she chuckled.
Hillary wants other women to hear her story and take ownership of their breast health.
“Don’t hesitate to get the mammogram,” she advises. “Don’t let lack of insurance or under insurance be a barrier. The treatment is available. The screening is available and if it’s caught early, it’s completely treatable,” she assures.
Hillary said her experience at St. Joe’s was remarkable, from the organizers at See, Test & Treat, to the radiation technologists she saw every day during treatment, to her oncologists and even the medical resident Hillary liked so much, she now sees her at the academic internal medicine clinic.
St. Joe’s pathologist Sharon Bihlmeyer, MD, leads See, Test & Treat each year, which she said breaks down barriers that might prevent woman like Hillary from getting a regular pap smear or mammogram.
“Through offering the tests and any follow-up free of charge, with same-day results while patients wait, we hope to overcome some of the typical obstacles that prevent women from getting screened,” Dr. Bihlmeyer said.
“Finding cancers at an early stage through screening techniques makes it possible to cure some cancers with our current treatments,” she added.
Hillary has some significant medical bills she is working to pay off from the cancer treatment. She and her husband, who both work jobs that don’t provide health insurance, are budgeting to purchase insurance on their own. But Hillary says it’s a small cost for catching her breast cancer early.
“I have faith and confidence that it’s going to be ok, because I’m alive, right? That didn’t happen by accident,” she said.
“I really feel that had I waited any longer, it’s very unknown on how far developed the cancer would have been. I really feel that I added 20 or 30 years to my life.”