By Drew Brooks The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer, except skin cancers, in American women. There is a one-in-eight chance that a woman will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Survivor Giorgia Rivera said she never thought she would be among that group.
Giorgia Rivera noticed the pain first -- a soreness in her left breast that she found in early October 2015.
She didn't know it then, but that pain was the opening salvo in her battle with breast cancer.
The most difficult part of that battle came during those few days before she was diagnosed but after she knew something wasn't right.
"It was scary," Rivera said from her home in Moore County, two years after winning her battle with the help of doctors and nurses at Womack Army Medical Center. "They were running tests and it's nerve-wracking. You just want to know right away so you know what to feel."
For Rivera, cancer was an eye-opener. It forced her to reevaluate her life, what she was doing and how she was spending time with her children.
Until October 2015, breast cancer wasn't something Rivera thought about.
She has no family history of breast cancer. In 2015, Rivera was 34, younger than the recommended age for women to begin annual breast cancer screenings.
But she knew the pain in her breast was a sign that something was wrong.
An Army dependent at the time, Rivera's first stop was the Breast Health Clinic at Womack Army Medical Center.
The Breast Health Clinic is one-of-a-kind within Army medicine, officials said. It's the only center in the Army that is accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers and one of approximately 550 across the nation that are voluntarily committed to the highest standards of breast cancer care.
It's also state of the art -- the only breast center in North Carolina outside the Duke University Health System that has specialized equipment to offer 3D Stereotactic breast biopsies.
The added dimension -- most biopsies are guided by 2D images -- allows doctors to be more precise and less intrusive while avoiding potential complications.
"We have a comprehensive breast cancer program," said Col. Simon H. Telian, an Army doctor and chief of general surgery at Womack. "It's a very comprehensive program. Everything from prevention and detection to treatment and reconstruction."
The clinic also offers genetic testing for breast cancer, participates in clinical studies along with UNC and Duke doctors and is part of the biobank program at the Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. That program collects tissue samples to support ongoing research into breast cancer.
Telian said Womack is one of the best medical centers in the military when it comes to diagnosing and treating breast cancer. That success is driven by necessity, he said. As one of the military's largest hospitals, the medical center has a patient population of nearly 250,000.
The Breast Health Clinic also attracts patients from other military communities, such as Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville and Army posts in Georgia.
The clinic serves roughly 2,000 patients each year, officials said. It adds 60 to 80 new breast cancer patients each year. And officials perform an estimated 15,000 mammograms over the same span.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer, except skin cancers, in American women. There is a one-in-eight chance that a woman will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
Rivera said she never thought she would be among that group.
But two years ago, on Oct. 15, at Womack Army Medical Center, doctors and nurses broke the news to her.
"The first day they tell you it's like a slap in the face," Rivera said of learning about her diagnosis.
In the days leading up to that visit, Rivera had undergone a series of mammograms and biopsies. Doctors wanted to be sure of what they were working with.
The cancer was in its early stages, they told her. But it was growing fast.
"The first thing was the fear," Rivera said. "Fear that I didn't spend enough time with my kids. I was worried that I was going to die."
Those children were 10 and 9 years old at the time. Rivera said she suddenly realized her time with them may be limited.
As she coped with a sudden sense of mortality, the staff at Womack rallied around her.
"They told me, 'This is not a death sentence,'" she said. "They told me I had to be strong. I had to fight this."
A little more than a month after her diagnosis, Rivera underwent a double mastectomy. Reconstructive surgeries would follow. And she continues to take medication.
But Rivera considers her fight over.
"And I can't thank them enough," she said of the staff at Womack. "They're amazing. I don't have enough words... They're like a family to me."
Telian said Womack takes pride in individualized treatment plans for its breast cancer patients. And in being able to treat even more complicated types of breast cancers.
The clinic offers several diagnostic procedures, treatment options and reconstructive surgeries.
"There really isn't anything we can't provide," he said.
Telian said officials are constantly working to improve. At the same time, they're trying to spread awareness in hopes that more cancers can be diagnosed earlier. Clinic officials also routinely attend community events on Fort Bragg to encourage women to be screened for breast cancer.
"Whenever you screen more you're going to find more," he said. "And we have the capability to do more."
Telian said women over the age of 40 are recommended to have yearly mammograms and breast exams, in addition to monthly self-exams.
Women with a history of breast cancer are advised to begin screening a decade before the age that their family member was diagnosed.
Telian also stressed that others, too, should be on the lookout for abnormalities.
That's what happened with Rivera, who felt the pain that led to her hospital visit.
Rivera said the pain was not where doctors eventually found her cancer. But she said she has no doubt that getting checked saved her life.
"If I had waited six more years, it would have spread everywhere," she said, referring to the recommended age for yearly breast cancer screenings. "If I wouldn't have gone, it would probably have been too late."
Rivera urges friends and family to be screened for breast cancer.
"People should get checked, no matter how old they are," she said.