Breast Cancer Health Is Not Optional

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on October 20, 2021 # Health, Lifestyle

Sheri and friends at a Breast Cancer WalkBy guest blogger Sheri Denkensohn-Trott

As individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI) and related neurological conditions, our plates are always overflowing with unavoidable healthcare needs. It is a constant juggling act and many of us, including me, try to stick to what we feel are the most immediate healthcare needs. Women with SCI, and even men, don’t list mammograms and breast health on their “mandatory” list. It is one more thing that is unpleasant and hard, so why bother?

Well, here’s why. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), one in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. For men, the percentage is significantly lower, but breast cancer is usually found at an advanced stage because men tend to avoid signs of breast cancer because of the “stigma” attached. Data proves that early detection can result in treatment that is more limited in scope and complexity. But let’s get real. How many paraplegics or quadriplegics want to get a mammogram? I was one who did NOT want to.

Despite my aversion, at the urging of my primary doctor (because of the prevalence of breast and other cancer in women of my Jewish heritage), I got my first mammogram at age 40. (ACS guidelines suggest women start at annual mammograms at 40, if possible, and strongly recommend regular screenings starting at age 45.) It was an awful experience. Trying to get my chair under the mammography machine, pulling my arm over the top of the plastic, and maneuvering so that my full breast was properly positioned was ugly gymnastics. Two technicians had to help, and it took over an hour. After the first mammogram, I never wanted to go back. Fortunately for me, I continued my yearly screenings.

After returning from a very long and serious hospitalization in April 2010, I scheduled my yearly mammogram for a couple of months later. I was very weak, and it was the last thing I wanted to do. Before the date arrived, while dressing me, my attendant felt a lump when she was putting my bra on. I figured it was likely dense tissue, but I moved up the scheduled mammogram. The next thing I knew, they were doing a biopsy and I got the call from my doctor on July 7, 2010. I had breast cancer. Of all health conditions that I imagined dealing with as a quadriplegic, breast cancer was low on the list. But, unlike other medical problems, I learned that when you are diagnosed with breast cancer, the process moves quickly.

Within days, I saw an oncologist and then the surgeon. Luckily my nurse practitioner friend attended the appointments with me, as a second set of ears and to help me navigate the lingo and make the necessary decisions. Because the cancer was discovered early, the usual treatment would be a lumpectomy followed by radiation. But, because I am a quadriplegic and cannot feel heat, radiation was not an option. After multiple opinions, I opted for a full mastectomy. I was not eligible for reconstruction because of my bony chest and lack of tissue, so I went with a bra with an insert.

Thankfully, the type of cancer that I had was not aggressive, so I did not require chemotherapy. At that point, my body would not have been able to tolerate it. Oral medications (such as tamoxifen) can reduce the likelihood of recurrence, but a side effect is weakened bone density. With bones already brittle from sitting for close to 30 years, I went with the option of routine follow-up and no medication. Eleven years later, I am proud – and relieved -- to say that I am still cancer-free.

So, what did I learn? First, do self-exams, yourself or with help if you need it. Second, make sure that your primary doctor does a regular breast exam, too. Schedule your regular mammogram. It is uncomfortable, but you can minimize the difficulty by letting the radiology clinic know in advance that you will need extra help and time. If diagnosed, always get a second opinion. Also, reach out for assistance.

I joined a breast cancer support group and have become active in the ACS Making Strides Against Breast Cancer yearly campaign, raising money for research and direct support. I have become a resource for others with SCI who are diagnosed with breast cancer. By calling the National Paralysis Resource Center, you can get connected with someone like me who will help you through your breast cancer journey. Remember, you are not alone.

My message is simple, don’t avoid a mammogram. You might be the one in eight. And if the screening detects the disease early, your treatment is more likely to be successful. Cancer does not discriminate. Any woman, including those with SCI, can easily be a statistic.

Sheri Denkensohn-Trott sustained a spinal cord injury in 1983 and is a C4 quadriplegic. She practiced law for the Federal government for 25 years and started her own business with her husband (who also has a disability) called Happy on Wheels, LLC. Their vision is to inspire others, with and without disabilities, to live happier lives through writing, speaking, mentoring, and consulting. Sheri is a columnist for New Mobility magazine and a regular contributor to other written publications. Additionally, she is a motivational speaker, professional storyteller, and mentors students and individuals of all ages. She serves on The Advisory Board of the Rockefeller College and is also a breast cancer survivor and Ambassador for the American Cancer Society. Sheri is currently writing her first book. Sheri and her husband reside in Arlington, Virginia. You can follow them on all forms of social media, and subscribe to their newsletter by accessing their website www.happyonwheels.com.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.