Salem resident battling cancer touts awareness

SALEM- A Salem resident diagnosed with breast cancer in June is urging people to be persistent when it comes to their health, especially if they’ve noticed a change in how their breasts look or feel.

“Every woman needs to take more personal responsibility for their own breast health. Nobody knows our bodies like we do,” Lisa Cahill said during a recent interview.

The 49-year-old businesswoman is almost finished with chemotherapy treatments at the Cleveland Clinic, where she will undergo a double mastectomy in November, possibly followed by radiation treatments depending on what the surgeons find.

She first noticed something wasn’t quite right in February while getting into the shower. Her left breast looked different and during a self-exam she felt thickened tissue, which felt kind of spongy and numb. It did not feel like a lump.

She went to her gynecologist and was referred to a breast center in Boardman where she had a mammogram and ultrasound. She said she received a letter which said she had an area of changing tissue in her breast that was not cancer, but should be checked again in four months.

Cahill continued to see changes in her breast and in June received a referral to a different breast center, the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center, where she had another mammogram and ultrasound. They wanted to do a biopsy right away.

“When I had to go in to get the biopsy results, I kind of knew. Good news they’ll tell you over the phone,” she said.

As far as she’s been able to find, there’s no known history of breast cancer in her family. Her maternal grandmother’s family had some instances of other types of cancer, but no breast cancer.

“I never imagined. I’m kind of a vitamin nerd and eat organic foods,” she said.

The diagnosis was invasive lobular carcinoma, described on the American Cancer Society website as “a cancer that starts in the milk-producing glands (lobules) of the breast and then breaks through the lobule walls and grows into the nearby fatty tissue. From there, it may spread elsewhere (metastasize). About 15 percent of invasive breast cancers are invasive lobular carcinomas. This type of cancer is often hard to detect by physical exam or even on a mammogram.”

Her last screening mammogram had been in March 2012. She felt she was doing what she was supposed to be doing by getting a yearly mammogram and doing the self-exams several times a year. She didn’t realize that some cancers may be difficult to see on a mammogram.

She said she was trusting other people too much to find the problem. She also said she should have been more persistent and gone back to the doctor sooner rather than waiting until June.

“That’s part of our responsibility to take care of our bodies, the same way we eat well and exercise. It’s part of body maintenance,” Cahill said.

As a data-oriented person, she’s been doing a lot of research since her diagnosis. She’s learned that mammograms alone aren’t enough, but stressed that they’re an important part of early detection. People need to do their monthly self-exams every single month, not just once in while. They need to pay attention to any changes.

The American Cancer Society website at said that despite some limitations, “mammograms are still a very effective and valuable tool for decreasing suffering and death from breast cancer.”

“The American Cancer Society believes the use of mammograms, MRI (in women at high risk), clinical breast exams, and finding and reporting breast changes early, (according to the recommendations), offers women the best chance to reduce their risk of dying from breast cancer. This approach is clearly better than any one exam or test alone,” the website said.

Cahill knows all too well the effects of breast cancer. She recently had a friend who died from the disease at the age of 46. Her sister-in-law, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who was born in Salem and graduated from West Branch, also died from cancer in 2009.

She became famous in 1999 after diagnosing her own breast cancer and beginning her own treatment while serving as the physician at a remote research station on the South Pole until she could be air-lifted out in a daring rescue mission. The cancer returned several years later.

Cahill doesn’t feel comfortable not talking about cancer.

“I feel like it’s important to raise awareness,” she said.