Breast cancer survivor and Good Morning America
news anchor Amy Robach delivered a compelling keynote address at the 33rd Annual Miami Breast Cancer Conference® that was as hard-hitting as it was emotional, slamming new US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines that push up the recommended age to 50 years for starting mammogram screening, and drawing moist eyes from the assembly of hundreds of breast cancer oncologists with her message of personal challenge and achievement.
“I thought I was that average woman in the US who doesn’t have to worry about getting the breast cancer test,” Robach said about her feelings in 2013 about mammogram screening. She was 40 years old, in excellent physical condition, and had no family history of breast cancer, leading her to believe that she was statistically in the safe zone. She had even conveniently “lost” a prescription from her OB-GYN to get a mammogram.
All those feelings of confidence and assumptions of immunity were turned upside down, she explained, when her Good Morning America
producer began prodding her to set an example for women 40 years and above by getting a mammogram in the most public way, in a Times Square “mammovan” before a live television audience of 6 million.
“I guarantee you will save a life. How can you say ‘no’ to that?” Robach recalled her producer telling her. What Robach said she didn’t realize at that point was that the life she was saving would be her own. Discovery of a suspicious lump led to a stage II, ER-positive, breast cancer diagnosis, followed by a double mastectomy, which was her choice in order to achieve what she described as “peace of mind”—to drive the potential for recurrence as far away as possible.
Her keynote drew a standing ovation from the assembly of oncologists and other healthcare workers and was described by conference Program Chair Patrick I. Borgen, MD, as the most powerful event in all 33 years of the breast cancer conference.
For Robach, her decision to get a bilateral mastectomy turned out to be the right call, as during surgery in a last look, her physician discovered a previously unidentified tumor. “You were right but I was good,” her surgeon told her after the operation.
In her talk, Robach described how she rose above the disease and found deeper appreciation for life. And for a time, the patient became the advisor to the physicians in attendance, offering advice on lobbying Washington to achieve screening recommendations for women starting at age 40; how and when to approach patients about a positive diagnosis; how to discuss with patients whether to get genetic testing; and how to prepare them for coping with the ravages of disease and treatment.
Some of her strongest criticism was directed at her own news profession. Robach described having delivered some of those same headlines on screening guidelines without fully understanding the significance for that statistical subset of women who would miss out on opportunities to catch their own breast cancer early in development.
“I have some very persuasive colleagues to thank. They pushed me past those dangerous, seductive headlines that tell young women they don’t need to be tested for breast cancer if they’re at average risk for disease. We all know that family history only predicts a small percentage of breast cancer patients, so I don’t buy into this average risk security blanket that they’re pedaling. No one can tell me that a mammogram didn’t save my life.”
Her talk was at times infused with humor, as the gifted public speaker retold the events that led up to that very visible mammogram in Times Square. “My producer called me into her office and said ‘I have a very sensitive assignment for you,’” she recalled. “’We want an anchor to have the first-ever live mammogram. We want that anchor to be you!’ I said ‘No way, no how!’” Robach said. “I’m not going to do it! What’s next, a pap smear?! These are really personal things. I don’t want 6 million people watching me have a mammogram for the first time.”
When she got the news that they’d found something suspicious on her image, she still dragged her feet about getting it checked out.
“I wasn’t worried, I was annoyed. I remember the arguments against 40 year olds getting mammograms. False alarms; unnecessary tests, undue anxiety; and I thought, ‘here we go. This is exactly what they’re talking about, and now I’m experiencing it. Wow.’”
But she told her mother, who latched on and “started a daily barrage of texts: have you made your appointment? Have you made your appointment?” Her mother then got her dad to text her about following up, and her dad got her brother to text her. “That pretty much made me make the phone call,” she said about going in for further tests.