Breast cancer didn’t run in Maria Allen’s family, but still, at age 52, she decided to get that routine mammogram.
That decision was, in part, influenced by her efforts at the time to lose weight and eat healthier. Her husband, Michael, also had a brief bout with prostate cancer a few years earlier.
It was a good thing she did. In April 2018, that exam at the Women’s Health & Medical Arts Building at Beverly Hospital turned up something “suspicious” looking. She got a call to undergo a diagnostic mammogram, which she did immediately at the Lahey Outpatient Center in Danvers, followed by an ultrasound and biopsy. They uncovered a small, malignant tumor.
After a successful surgery, radiation treatment and ongoing medication, Allen is still cancer-free two years later. And she makes sure to get those yearly mammograms, as well as an MRI, due to having dense breast tissue.
“It was a good wake-up call,” said the Salem resident.
One of six siblings, Allen said no one else in her family ever had breast cancer. She never imagined it would happen to her. But, she said, it’s become more common today and now she makes sure to share her story with her family and to stress the importance of the routine exams.
Allen also has a background in health care — she worked for 11 years as a licensed practical nurse, mainly in the area of pediatric oncology, both in New York, where she’s originally from, and on the North Shore after moving to Massachusetts.
“But I didn’t like it, it just wasn’t for me,” she said, explaining that she ended up going back to school and earned a certificate in culinary arts from North Shore Community College in Danvers.
These days, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Allen works from home designing and stitching face masks that she sells in her husband’s shop in downtown Salem, the Red Lion Smoke Shop on Washington Street.
She said being treated for breast cancer has resulted in changes in her life.
“All in all, the experience has shown me how much more knowledgeable and dedicated medical personnel have become. In my case, the routine mammogram showed something suspicious and I was able to get treated in a timely manner,” she said. “Sometimes, a routine mammogram is not enough information, especially if you have dense breast tissue. I have always had dense breast tissue, yet the routine mammogram still picked up something that was a possible abnormality.”
Allen still takes a regular prophylactic to block her body’s estrogen output, which helps reduce the likelihood of her cancer returning. She said she has to take it for five to 10 years. And daily brisk walks for exercise. Her husband, too.
“We have both had a brush with cancer, so we stay fit by healthier food choices and walk outside as much as we can,” she said.