This morning was my six month breast cancer screening complete with Mammogram and Ultrasound on a complex cyst. Now I first want to point out that this is simply MY STORY and that I am in no way medically stating that this is the norm or even what will or will not happen to you. Again I find things like having your breast smooshed flat by a woman asking “Are you comfortable like that?” (she is asking only, you may be uncomfortable but she is still going to do it this way.) humorous and slightly overwhelmingly emotional. So, the thing about me, if there is going to be an emotion I choose happy..or happy adjacent with hilarious or even mildly funny. So let us start from the beginning as to what brought me here to this sterile room wearing an oversized robe and being asked if I’m comfortable as my ninny is being squeezed in a vice.
I was twenty eight years old and in a typical routine check up with my doctor. She is such a lovely woman that I immediately am both uncomfortable and flattered when she asks if it is ok to check my breasts for lumps. “Well, if you want to!” I think. I nod and we get down to it. She is talking to me about things so that we both don’t think it’s weird that she is touching my breasts and she abruptly stops talking and closes her eyes. She starts to really concentrate on this one spot. She asks “Have you ever felt this before?” Ugh, I know self exams on breasts is sort of important, but at this time I have three kids under the age of ten and I didn’t get a lot of alone time to feel myself up. I gulp (probably audibly) and shrug.
“I never felt anything before.” I say. because i haven’t been looking i whisper in my swirling head.
“Well take your fingertips and touch right here.” she draws my hand toward the spot and damn it, yup a fucking lump. Not a large lump just a little smooth lump and it is simply there.
“You should have that checked out by a specialist….really great surgeon….I’ll give you a referral….really should get a mammogram first….it will be okay. Any questions?” My head was swimming with all of this information. My youngest daughter is one and I immediately give myself the death sentence and think “My babies are going to grow up without a mother.”
I get my papers, referrals, mammogram slip and a reassuring smile, “I just would rather have it checked out.”
This paperwork weighed a thousand pounds and I don’t know what to think. My mind was drawing a blank. I at this moment in time can honestly tell you that this is not what I had expected today. I get in my car and sit behind the wheel with shock and a single tear slips away from my eye. There I was this young mom with three little kids with a dumb lump in her breast. My image of Debra Winger in ‘Terms of Endearment’ comes to mind…I’m going to be that mother…the one who dies young and I am still carrying that extra twenty pounds of baby weight…I meant to lose the weight first before my death…why doesn’t anything ever go as planned? I start my car and drive to the babysitter’s house. She is friendly and wants to talk, I do not. I want my baby and I want to go home and I want to sit with my child in my lap and be depressed. Please stop talking to me now so that I can get back to my depression.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Yeah, I just have a lot to get done before I get my son off of the bus.” He’s in kindergarten and he comes home at lunch time. I had a perfect excuse and she lets me leave.
I get home and my phone is ringing. It’s the imaging center calling to make my appointment for my first ever mammogram. Then I get that scheduled and then I call the specialist. The baby had fallen asleep on the way home from the sitters so it is the perfect time to get this all done. I go to my baby’s room where she is sleeping and I watch her. She is perfection.
The day arrives for my mammogram and I go to the hospital imaging center and sit and wait my turn…which takes forever because they have emergency imaging that they have to take care of before they look at my pea sized lump. I finally get called back to disrobe and put on the very flattering gown that was pink to remind me that I am a girl and I have boobs that are causing my problem. You see if I was a boy I would more than likely Not be here. Men are less likely (although it can happen) to get breast cancer. The girl asks me where the lump is she feels around for it and then tapes a fucking ballbearing to it. “So it shows us what to look for.” she explains. (this was back in the cave ages when we subjected women to such things…after this the bloodletting and a script for leaches)
I go in and I am too small (not my jugs those are huge cuz I am fat) to reach the machine so she further embarrasses me by bringing me a step stool. Now when she did this I was all like “what if I slip off of the step stool and am hanging by my titty in that God forsaken clamp. What if that ballbearing gets permanently embedded in my skin.” and I, horrified by my own thoughts, start to giggle. The woman says to me “You can’t move. Now we need to start all over.”
“I’m sorry.” I say and really try to take this seriously. So let me tell you exactly what I need to be taking seriously. Me in my pink gown opened in the front, a ball bearing taped to where my lump is, I am on a step stool while this woman is kneading my breast so that she can compress it with her massive boob squishing machine. Take this seriously, Becki! For Heaven’s sake just for once don’t be such a child!!!!
I get all of the pictures taken and then I am told that I can get dressed and then I can leave. Thank God, because I couldn’t hold it together back there. I get in my car and start to think things like “Did she look like I had cancer when she talked to me? She didn’t look me in the eye was that because she saw that I had cancer or was it because she was fondling me?” See you over think things when you don’t have any answers.
The way it worked back before everything was digital, you had to go pick up your films and take them to the specialist for them to point everything out to you. I go pick up this gigantic manilla folder with my titty pics in it and I have to carry them home.
As soon as I get home I open that bad boy up because I am curious as George and the red balloon. I look at the films and to my untrained eye I am loaded with cancer. Holy hell, my cancer even has cancer and there it is the ball bearing pointing out the worst cancer spot that everyone is so worried about. The next day is my appointment with the specialist. I make it early in the morning and I head straight there, my husband stayed home with the baby this time. I get to the specialist’s office and they are super efficient. I look around and I am the youngest by like thirty years. Ugh! These women all look at me with sorrow and you can tell they are all thinking “She’s too young to die.” And they are right. I am too young to die.
The specialist is the most capable woman I have ever met. She takes out my films and says “I really don’t see anything on here that concerns me.” (she clearly didn’t see what I was seeing) “Let my have a feel of the lump and get you out of here, shall we?”
(She sure is taking my death awfully well, although we don’t know each other and she sees a lot of this stuff so maybe she is just kind of cold like that.) She feels around and says when it is smooth and moves around like this it is more likely than not a cyst. My plan for you is to start having yearly mammograms, even though you are young for that and I will see you if things get worse.” (get worse?)
That’s it? I’m not going to die? Its nothing, Phew! This was the beginning of a very trying time of my life. The second stint to the specialist to look at my wayward lump was on THE September 11th. My husband and I were very unaware of what was happening at the twin towers and when the nurse saw my husband she had been crying. She said “OH MY GOD, you don’t know what happened. Do you?” My husband holding our toddler in his arms was thinking ‘How do I raise these kids alone?’ He was a little relieved when he found out he didn’t have to. We went home to find that they were putting the schools on lockdown, my poor children. Oh by the way the doctor stuck a needle in the lump and deemed it safe for another year.
My life looks like this for the next ten years until I a forty and I go in for my mammogram and they ask on the questionnaire if anything new cropped up…yes I have discharge from my nipple. The mammographer tells me that she, in fact, cannot do my mammogram because of the discharge. I look at her and say “Then just cross it out and let’s pretend it didn’t say that.” I smile because I know I’m being ridiculous but I am also a problem solver and that’s what I can do about this little problem. She calls my doctor and I am to go straight to his office, for a “Nipple Smear” Why yes it is as classy as it sounds. They take your breast make it discharge and smear it on glass plate for inspection. I get in my car and think to myself are you kidding? He wrote me a new script for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. Ugh, here we go again. This time I really am not that worried about it. My oldest was graduating from high school and I am super busy with the kids’ schedule to dream up my death. I really am just too busy to conjure my funeral.
I was painting my dining room when my doctor calls me “There are A-typia cells that are closely related to carcinoma, we made an appointment with the surgeon, she will be doing a ductal excision.” I hang up the phone and look at the time. It was time to pick the kids up at school, I don’t have time to process this. My husband is always traveling and I am not even sure how to tell him. I wash up and clean the paint mess hastily and head out to pick up the kids. I try to talk to them normal-like but I notice that my voice is too high (and this is a big deal because I have the voice of a mouse to begin with). I get through the pick ups and drop offs at the various and assorted sports/activites. I go home and call my husband. I leave the message that I got the results and he needed to call me as soon as he can. I pick the kids up, I make dinner, I help with homework, and we watch a little tv. I get the youngest tucked in to bed and my husband calls me back. He was busy and just now got to his hotel room. I tell him the news and he immediately doesn’t know what to say. That’s okay because neither do I. He had business meetings and he really couldn’t cancel some but if I want him to…. I don’t! I don’t want him to because that would make this all too real. I am not going to do this to myself again.
The day of my surgery and all goes well. I will hear back with the biopsy. I am pretty loopy and I am wearing this HUGE gauze bandage over my chest. I then had on a tank top over it and to my perfectly altered brain I looked down and was like this looks completely normal. I say it to everyone. “YOU Can’t even tell…” everyone gives me the same look like they are going to simply go along with my denial. It seems the best thing to do. When I come off of my anesthesia high I look in the mirror and I see the truth. I have a gauze bandage and a special bra to hold everything in place. That bra and bandaging stays put until my next appointment with the surgeon. Now I remember her saying to me “You did great, listen I had to take out more than I thought I would. Don’t you worry I got it all.”
I now think….what if I lost my breast. I actually was skinny now. I had lost the baby weight and I worked out two hours a day. I was fit and well, you probably will notice that I was missing one boob, Right? The day of the big reveal and I go in to get my bandages off. I am terrified at what is underneath. She removes the bandage and there it was…my breast fully intact with a small wrinkle and stitches. My doctor, this capable woman that I met in my twenties, had done amazing work. You really had to simply be impressed at her surgical skills and know-how. She tells me I am going to be sore because she roughed up my muscle quite a bit and injected some fat to fill it out. I couldn’t find anything hilarious about this moment. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. The biopsy came back with good news, it was papilloma and I was good to go. Call if anything arises.
A few years later, I had quite the rough year, complete with emotional upheaval and I woke up and my pajamas have a bloody wet spot by my nipple, the other side now. I call my doctor and he refers me straight to my surgeon, she retired but a new surgeon was there. I am sad that I won’t have that medical wonder but I meet with the new surgeon and I get a great warmth from her. Again ductal excision …not uncommon to see papilloma on the other side. The biopsy comes back “TOO Clean” go in for more testing, everything goes well. I think you are good lets just keep up with mammograms every six months. I go into my mammograms for a year and a half. On the third mammogram I get a call back. Oh sure when I tried out for that musical I didn’t get a call back, but this, this they call me back for. Abnormal mammogram… really should come in for a second one complete with ultrasound. Go in, complex cyst. follow up in six month, it’s still there.
To Today, I go in and I marvel at the technology. The machine isn’t built “One Size fits All” In fact, neither are the gowns…I grabbed the blue gown….it was not the right one…it was huge on me. I laugh because I don’t know if I should take it off and put on the smaller pink one…do I fold it back up and put it back in the sterile bag…do I put the blue one in the wash? I decide to just keep it on, it honestly tired me out thinking about it. The mammographer laughs as I come out and sees my 4’7″ frame in this tent of a gown. “I’m sorry! You put on the wrong size, oh well it will keep you warm.”
Mammogram first, then wait and then ultrasound. The ultrasound tech is different from the mammographer she too laughs at my mistake of wearing the extra large gown, I feel bad because I know that someone may need it and tiny me is wearing it. She performs the ultrasound…she gets quiet. She comes back in again and apologizes but she needs to take more pictures. She comes back in with my results, which is great that they don’t make you wait anymore. I still have a complex cyst and there are more of them. I get my “probably benign” diagnosis and I leave. I have also had the genetic testing, a while back when I had all of that other testing and that was clear of BRCA mutations. So I will go back in six months to see where it takes me.
So yes, I do find the experience of breast cancer screening overwhelming and I do choose to find something in it to laugh at. I don’t take it lightly and I know that women far greater than me have faced this challenge head on. Some have been diagnosed and beat their demon. Others fought and lost the war. Some have gone into it with fear and came out a warrior. No cancer, breast or otherwise, is really no laughing matter. To all of the women out there fighting, getting screenings and those of you like myself somewhere in the middle, I want to say to you that I am proud of you, you are brave and you are strong. Now go kick cancer’s ass because that asshole deserves it!
Let’s take a pause now for the warrior women who have fallen, may you be remembered for the badass heroes that you are!!!!