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Women make case for mammograms
Three women, part of the Battlefield Elementary School family, are on a mission to raise awareness of breast cancer.

 Jenny Welham (left), Amy Watkins (standing) and Melissa Gregory have teamed together to promote visits of a mammography van at Spotsylvania County schools. A mammogram helped diagnose Watkins' cancer.
ROBERT A. MARTIN/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 7/6/2011

By CATHY DYSON

All Amy Watkins was trying to do was honor the wish of a school acquaintance who had breast cancer and wanted to raise awareness of the disease.

But in her efforts to help the parent-teacher organization bring a mobile mammography unit to Battlefield Elementary School, Watkins may have saved her own life.

Almost on a fluke, she signed up for the screening and found out she had breast cancer--at age 36.

"It's pretty incredible," said Dr. Kay Blanchard, a Fredericksburg surgeon who treated Watkins. "Somebody was definitely looking out for her."

Watkins has no family history of breast cancer, except for one aunt with the disease. Had she waited until age 40 for her first mammogram, which is the typical recommendation, her case "would have been a whole lot worse," the surgeon said. "It probably would have turned into invasive cancer."

Instead, Watkins said she feels great as she recovers from a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

She and Jenny Welham, the woman who requested the mammography unit at school, are counting their blessings.

"I feel like we had angels looking out for us," Welham said.

SPREADING THE WORD

Welham is a pediatrician with a practice at Lee's Hill and two children at Battlefield Elementary in Spotsylvania County.

She's good friends with Melissa Gregory, the PTO president. Likewise, Gregory is good friends with Watkins, a fifth-grade teacher at the school.

The teacher and pediatrician knew of each other, but their paths really hadn't crossed--until Welham went through her second intensive procedure in two years.

Welham is 42 and had surgery in fall 2008 to repair spinal cord compression. In fall 2010, Welham started feeling pain in her left breast and noticed an unusual flat spot.

An ultrasound showed a tumor. She had a mastectomy and went through several procedures to reconstruct the breast.

Welham had started getting annual mammograms at age 40. But she said the yearly test wouldn't have detected the growth because of the dense tissue around it.

Still, Welham knew she wanted to encourage other women to have mammograms. That's what a neighbor, another teacher, did 20 years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Plus, Welham sees a lot of parents, including teachers, who are busy taking care of families and jobs.


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The American Cancer Society recommends that women at average risk for breast cancer have yearly mammograms starting at age 40. That's contrary to what the United States Preventive Services Task Force announced in November 2009. It recommended women start the annual screenings at age 50. (Ask your doctor if you have questions about when to start getting screened.)

For women under 40, Dr. Kay Blanchard of Fredericksburg recommends clinical exams of the breasts during yearly physicals. She also suggests that women know their own bodies and be aware of changes. That's how pediatrician Jenny Welham discovered her cancer, which wouldn't have shown up on a mammogram because of the dense tissue around it. Welham had pain in her side and an unusual flat spot on her breast.

About one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, according to U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics.

Amy Watkins and Jenny Welham, who knew of each other at Battlefield Elementary School, became fast friends after both had breast cancer.

Welham shared tips with Watkins that other breast-cancer survivors had told her about post-surgery activity.

She suggested a recliner for sleeping because lying flat would be too painful. She told Watkins to give her body time to heal and not push her recovery. And she suggested comfortable pajamas, suitable bras and button-up shirts so Watkins wouldn't have to raise the affected arm.