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A test worth taking

By Paula Zahn
CNN
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Paula Zahn's mother, Betty, twice beat breast cancer -- a battle Paula profiled in a special one-hour show entitled "Breast Cancer Survivor Stories." Here, Paula offers viewpoints she developed during her family's struggle with this deadly disease.

(CNN) -- When cancer first touched my life in 1984, there were no pink ribbons, no 5K races for "the cure" and few support groups to rely upon. Cancer was the kind of word you whispered and prayed didn't strike your family.

But over the course of that year, my family was stricken four times. My father was diagnosed with lymphoma, my aunt with a blood-borne cancer, my mother and sister-in-law with breast cancer.

In the end, the disease would take the lives of everyone but my mother, Betty. She survived the first diagnosis, mastectomy and recovery only to have it discovered again five years later.

In some cases, up to 40 percent of breast cancer patients have a recurrence. My mother was one of them. In both cases, she believes that a mammogram saved her life.

Mammography technology can detect small tumors before they are palpable by physical examination. The key here, from what I've learned from experts and personal experience, is to consult your physician and be your own advocate.

The American Cancer Society recommends women do monthly breast self-examinations and have an annual clinical physical examination. The ACS and government health agencies recommend mammograms every year for women ages 40 and older.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, report that regular mammograms staring at age 50 can reduce mortality rates by 37 percent. Some question, however, the value of regular mammograms before the age of 40.

Having dealt with breast-cancer issues for the better part of two decades, I believe that early detection is key. And while mammography is not a perfect tool, experts say it is the first step in the process leading to breast-cancer eradication.

Dr. Larry Norton, a breast cancer specialist at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, told me that the death rate from breast cancer has dropped in all countries with regular mammography.

As a journalist, I rarely blend my personal convictions with my professional duties. My story could be your story. Every three minutes brings a new case of breast cancer. Every 13 minutes brings another death.

Breast cancer is one of the most important health concerns for women today. According to the American Cancer Society, one in every seven women will be diagnosed in their lifetime. In 2005, the ACS estimates 211,240 women will be diagnosed with -- and more than 40,410 will die from -- breast cancer.

The numbers boggle the mind. It's a disease that not only touches women but the men, who love them -- the fathers, the husbands, the sons (in fact, an estimated 1,690 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005).

I know my mother believes that she is here today, some 20 years after her first surgery, because a routine mammogram found a lump she could not detect. For that, my family will always be grateful. And that is what gets me to the doctor every year for my routine physical.

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Betty Zahn, left, with daughter Paula, has been diagnosed with -- and survived -- breast cancer twice.

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