This article has been amended since first posting to provide additional information on breast screening mammography.
A North Shore MLA is urging women not to delay getting screening mammograms after a routine test recently detected her breast cancer at an early stage.
Karin Kirkpatrick, Liberal MLA for West Vancouver-Capilano, said she decided to go public with her story in the hopes of prompting other women to book their mammograms.
“This happens to so many women, one out of eight women,” she said. “So I’m telling a story so many people out there already know.”
Kirkpatrick said if her story prompts other women to book their screening tests it will have been well worth it.
She also hopes talking about her experience will let people know it’s OK to talk about cancer.
In her own case, Kirkpatrick said she doesn't have a family history of breast cancer, but has had screening mammograms “on a sporadic basis.”
The tests – which involve compressing the breast to take an image – can be uncomfortable, which is one reason women put off getting it done, said Kirkpatrick.
Being busy is another typical excuse. All too often, the reminder letters tend to get buried in a heap of other non-urgent papers.
But that changed for Kirkpatrick with COVID. “When the pandemic hit, it really made me start thinking about my health.”
She knew a person who died of COVID who had left behind a young family.
That got her thinking. “Anything can happen to you at any time.”
So a year ago, Kirkpatrick said she decided to consciously make her own health a priority.
This time when her reminder letter arrived in September, instead of ignoring it, Kirkpatrick booked an appointment at the North Shore’s screening mammography program. She felt relieved a couple of weeks later after the test was done. Then came the phone call telling her they needed to take more detailed images.
By the third week of October, she was at North Shore Imaging, where a radiologist who looked at those images delivered the bad news, telling Kirkpatrick “Ninety-nine per cent of the time I see that, it’s cancer.”
She was immediately sent to Lions Gate Hospital for a biopsy, which confirmed a type of cancer known as “invasive lobular carcinoma.”
“This particular type of cancer is more like a spider web,” she said. "It doesn’t form a lump.”
Kirkpatrick got her diagnosis as the legislature was sitting in November. In Victoria, she told only a few people at first, because she wasn't sure what the diagnosis would mean – either personally or professionally. Two weeks later she met with doctors on the North Shore and had successful surgery to remove the cancer at Lions Gate Hospital, Dec. 20, six weeks after her diagnosis.
“I know that the stars aligned for me,” said Kirkpatrick, adding the North Shore is fortunate to have good resources.
Kirkpatrick said she will later have radiation therapy scheduled, but is currently back home and recovering from the surgery.
She said one of the people who inspired her to talk about her experience was a colleague, Richmond-Queensborough MLA Aman Singh, who went public with his colon cancer diagnosis following routine screening.
“I talked to him a little bit about that,” she said.
Kirkpatrick said she decided to speak out because “my experience with this was so fortunate. And the reason that I am fortunate is I went online and booked that appointment. I didn’t bury it on my desk.”
Since going public, Kirkpatrick said she’s received kind words from colleagues on both sides of the house, including from Premier John Horgan, who was recently himself diagnosed with cancer.
Among the public, “I've got a lot of people who've said, ‘This happened to me. I got my mammogram right away. I was diagnosed, and I'm good.’ And I've had a few who said, ‘I wish I'd gone sooner. I ended up with Stage 3 cancer.’”
A lot of women have also been able to relate to the tendency to push their own health concerns aside, because there’s always something else that seems a higher priority.
But it’s not, said Kirkpatrick. “Your health is so important.”
Breast screening mammography is available free of charge for all women over 40 in B.C. Screening is currently recommended for women 50 – 79 in B.C. every two years. Women with a family history of breast cancer aged 40 - 79 should also get an annual mammogram. Women between 40 and 50 without a family history are encouraged to talk to their doctors about the benefits and limitations of mammograms at this age but can book an appointment every two years. Younger women at high risk for breast cancer can also get a referral for screening. On the North Shore, tests can be booked through North Shore Mammography or by calling 1-800-663-9203. Men and transgender people can also get breast cancer and should talk to their doctors about any concerns.