Years before I turned 40, I had my first mammogram. I didn’t want to. Put my body part in a vise? I have no history of breast cancer but there was a lot of cancer diagnoses of random types in my immediate and extended family. My doctor felt it was prudent to be cautious, so I begrudgingly went along with it. Mammograms: they’re not just for the over-45 crowd.
Since that first squishy and uncomfortable experience, I try to get them annually. My insurance covers it 100%, so I really have no excuse for letting that lapse. I was surprised when I got a postcard reminding me of my radiology appointment; I couldn’t go that date, so I called to reschedule. I remember telling the woman on the phone that this was just routine, so no rush. Parking is so bad at the hospital complex, I was willing to wait until I could go first appointment of the day. It didn’t even occur to me that I was pushing it out beyond a 2.5 year gap from the last one. Honestly, even if I had known that, I’d probably have been okay with it.
I went in for the mammogram and chatted with the other ladies about our stylish gowns. The tech was kind and gentle. I told her it wasn’t really painful, more just the whole ‘a stranger is grabbing a lady part.’ She laughed and told me that when she has hers done, she has to choose which co-worker she wants to see hers and then still work with the next day. Yeah, I’ll take a stranger over that any day. She re-took a couple of shots, stood quietly for a second before dismissing me and said I’d get a postcard in the mail either way.
Cool beans, mammogram done in under 20 minutes from check-in to finish.
That was Wednesday morning. Friday around lunch, I got a phonecall from an unrecognized number. I typically don’t answer them; I let them leave a voicemail. I’m so glad something made me answer this call though. It was the radiology department, calling to tell me that the doctor had a concern with my left breast and he wanted me to come back in. They were going to do a more detailed mammogram on that side and possibly an ultrasound.
The idea that this mammogram was anything more than a routine item to check off my list was surreal. In fact, the whole ordeal over the next few days was surreal. I never in my life expected a call back. Me? This doesn’t run in my family. She prodded me to answer, and I said yes, how soon can we do this? When she gave me a date over two weeks away, I was again sort of speechless.
I get this news dropped on me on a Friday afternoon and now they can’t see me for two more weeks?
I settled the appointment and called the husband, who talked me off a virtual ledge of a omgwhatjusthappened moment. I don’t freak out over much, and the last thing I want to talk about is health issues. Everyone has them and the idea of having something beyond “normal” was probably more of a reason to freak out. We talked about telling the kids, and while I wavered on that, I agreed in the end that it was best to tell them. We’re pretty open with things, and the kids like to be involved. (If they were young young kids though, we’d have done differently.) We also knew that if it turned out there was a problem, we’d hear “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Telling them was tough. I tried to keep it lighthearted and each kid responded in their own way. We went out and got drinks at happy hour and came home with take-out. The weekend passed by on a good note, with the beach trip and relaxed time around the house. Monday morning, I was out to breakfast with a close friend when I got another call from the same number. This time, I answered without hesitation. Radiology was calling to move up my appointment to Wednesday afternoon. I took it, didn’t ask questions and was thankful to know I’d have answers much sooner. I notified the husband so he could attend with me and went back to my mimosa and chorizo burrito, relieved that the process was moving quickly.
Finally, it was Wednesday.
Wednesday was a weird day. My patience was short and I was jumpy. I’d done a little research, learning that about 10% of women get called back for a repeat mammogram. Out of that 10%, only something like 20% end up having to have a biopsy, and less than 10% of those women are diagnosed with cancer. Overall, my odds were pretty good. Still, odds haven’t always been in our favor. A child with autism, another with epilepsy, fertility issues…we knew odds were just numbers that weren’t always on our side.
Around 4pm, I checked in at the mammography follow-up department. I hadn’t even realized this was a department before. I’ve had friends with breast cancer but I was detached from it otherwise. Blissfully ignorant. Getting a wristband put on for a doctor’s appointment felt so…formal. It was suddenly real. The idea that within an hour or so, I’d know if I had a serious health issue to deal with or if I was going to get lucky.
Somehow, that wristband made it all more real, like I was a patient, not just there for something routine…
I don’t know how they do it with other insurances or hospitals, but based on my limited experience, Kaiser’s system is a good one. I was called into the department with two other women and the technician explained the process to us. Get in a gown, flash your wristband and get called in for the mammogram. They confirm we’re not wearing deodorant or lotion on the concerning side; we all knew whether we were a left or right breast person by then.
After taking turns in the dressing room, we all sat down with a couple of other ladies already waiting. The mood was understandably odd, ranging from a woman trying to keep ice packs inside her bra from a biopsy, to an older lady who reminded us to not worry until we had to. (I wish I could have thanked her; she knew I was nervous and kept me chatting, asking about things and talking about travel.)
Then it was my turn.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to it being painful. The first picture wasn’t too bad, but I’ve never had such pressure on any part of my body. Ouch. I remember thinking, does anyone ever pop open? Then x-ray number two, in a different position. Each time, your arm on that side is draped over a machine and you grab a handle designed to keep it out of the way.
It was supposed to be just two pictures, but she ended up needing a third. After each x-ray, she’d tell me to breathe again (breathing during makes the picture fuzzy) and if I was okay. The first two, yes. The third, I had a moment of struggle saying yes. In my head, I’m thinking “this is nothing, others go through so much worse, I can’t be a baby” but I felt suddenly flushed, hot and I saw sparkles. Thankfully, it was fleeting.
That machine…we women joked that if a man had designed it, it would hurt a lot less.
The technician showed me the initial mammogram and what the concern was, but I didn’t get to see the new pictures. I went back to the waiting room with the other ladies, where we all had a laugh wondering what happens if you do pass out. You’re wedged so tightly into the machine, what happens? Do you fall? Do you just kind of dangle? It was a much needed moment of levity, especially when the older woman said “It’s like a Dory boob” and she imitated Dory. (I laughed when she said “You need to go see that movie!”)
She told me that I was definitely getting an ultrasound. Scary yet comforting all at once. I only had to wait about 10 minutes for a room to open. They have multiple rooms, nurses and doctors so things move quickly. I had a brief ultrasound with another nurse, then they bring in the husband and the doctor. The doctor explained the concern with the first mammogram and began his ultrasound. I didn’t watch the screen but complied by laying in various positions so the doctor got the best reading possible. Within minutes, it was over. I luckily got the words I wanted to hear:
Your mammogram results are normal. We don’t see anything to be concerned about.
My worry was for nothing. I tried to blow it off but with breast cancer stories everywhere, it’s hard. In fact, I don’t think you should blow it off. It’s a good kick in the pants to stay on top of mammograms. I won’t let mine slide again, that fear of “what happens if there’s something there and I didn’t catch it in time” is too recent.
I’m fortunate, and I know it, that my results were negative. The woman with the biopsy wasn’t as fortunate and I feel for her. The woman who had to pay for this mammogram follow-up because medicaid only pays for one mammogram has my sympathy, too. Out of all the procedures out there for elective medical care and all the deaths due to breast cancer, to not have that paid for is beyond ridiculous. Money should never be a worry when it comes to lifesaving care and treatment. I am so lucky that Kaiser covered all of this. I paid zero for all of it. (I do pay a nice chunk of change every month to have coverage like that, but it’s far less than I’d pay without it.)
It’s okay to talk about it.
I told almost no one during this. Talking about your breast, your “boob,” is personal. Some people are uncomfortable. I didn’t want to have my worry dismissed. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to dwell on it either, but there’s always at least one person that hears your story and has to make it about them. This was my first situation like this, and I didn’t want to deal with someone else’s feelings about it. I’m not comfortable being the center of attention unless I’m telling a funny story at a party, or if I’m mad and trying to get someone to listen, so being the one people are worried about? It’s so not me.
I’m talking about it now though, for a few reasons. If you’re in a similar situation, know that it’s okay for it to be about you. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s okay to worry about it. I wouldn’t want it to be consuming, but it’s your health, your life. With pink ribbons all over, you can’t avoid statistics and the overwhelming truth about how those odds are always going to be someone. Until you know it’s not, that someone could be you.
Don’t wait on those mammograms.
Do your self-exams and get comfortable with your body. If your gut tells you something is wrong, listen to it. I am thankful my story ends here, but it taught me something: get checked. Value your health. Don’t let the idea of the mammogram prevent you from getting it done. The pain is fleeting and like we talked about yesterday, to the staff, it’s “just another boob.” Like having a baby and having people see your ‘parts,’ it’s all done in the name of health and embarrassment goes by the wayside.
Life is short. Take care of your health so you can enjoy it.