Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Screenings Save Lives

“I’m not worried about it.”

I lied. I was terrified.

I had put off my annual pap smear and exam for too long; I had a very strong gut feeling about that. I was finally able to ditch hormonal birth control in my mid-30s when my partner and I agreed we were done having children and we wanted a more permanent solution. And while I’d always known that the tissue in my breasts was dense, I started developing fibrocystic breast changes between ovulation and the start of menstruation.

Even as a teenager, my mother hung a waterproof guide in our shower on how to give a monthly self breast exam. While there is some debate over whether this is truly a helpful measure, I strongly believe in knowing our own bodies so we can advocate for ourselves when necessary. And before my exam, I knew that I had several lumps, some of which came and went with my cycle, a few which did not.

Almost immediately, my doctor told me he wanted me to go for additional screenings to check out a cyst in my right breast. Here we go I thought. Serves me right for putting off this appointment.

I was scared. For anyone with breasts, mammograms are recommended annually after the age of 40, and earlier than that depending on personal risk factors. I was only 35.

woman lies on table with hands covering her breasts

Let’s get real about it: mammograms are very clearly cancer screening. And that fact alone is deeply unsettling for many of us, even if there is no cause for concern.

Sure, an annual physical or routine bloodwork could also be thought of as “cancer screening”– but I never really think of it like that.

Telling my husband and parents that I needed to go back for a mammogram and breast ultrasound, I tried to play it very cool. “I’m not worried about it!” I said with what I hoped was an easy, breezy tone of voice and smile. I didn’t want to worry about it because I didn’t want them to worry about it. And I didn’t feel comfortable sharing this with even my closest friends; it felt too personal.

I was scheduled for my screenings within a few days of my initial appointment– too fast? A coincidence? Is my doctor really worried, too? Due to hospital restrictions at that time, I couldn’t bring anyone for moral support to my appointment.

Everyone at the breast imaging center was so gentle and kind. I removed my clothes and slipped into a warm robe, a nice spa-like touch. These people know it’s scary, I thought. And I was grateful to realize that.

woman in robe ready for her mammogram to screen for breast cancer

After my diagnostic mammogram I was taken back into a small room for the ultrasound. The ultrasound technician slowly went over the cyst in question, over and over again. It felt like forever, but it was maybe 5-10 minutes. I stared at the screen, seeing a tiny bubble with some squiggles inside. I remembered the joy at having ultrasounds when pregnant with my two children and thinking how very different this felt.

The radiologist told me I would need to come back for a needle biopsy, just to make sure the cyst was indeed a cyst and nothing more. This meant a return appointment and more waiting. But again, not too long- I was to go back the following week.

At times like these, Google is not always a friend. I kept searching “ultrasound breast cancer images” and “breast cancer survival rates by age“. I kept trying to reassure myself and the few loved ones who knew what was going on it would turn out to be nothing. I also tried to let gratitude for modern medicine be my predominant focus, which was not easy.

woman holds up breast cancer awareness card

The day of my biopsy, my mom drove me and waited in the car. I got back into the warm robe and then received a shot of lidocaine to numb the area of my breast where the lump was. Aside from my nerves, this was the most uncomfortable part of the experience.

An ultrasound technician and a radiologist were both present as a needle was guided into the cyst. This was the moment of truth; either the cyst would collapse from the needle or they would extract cells to see what exactly this lump was.

The cyst collapsed. I felt relief wash over me. Did I detect the relief in the medical professionals around me, too?

Since then, I’ve returned to the breast center for mammograms and ultrasounds every six months. I’ve discussed options for myself with my doctors.  Even the possibility of alternating MRI imaging with mammograms has been floated around, and I’m relieved that when it comes to my health, I can trust that if I ever do end up with breast cancer it will be caught early and it will be treatable.

Ultimately, with 3 clear screenings in a row, the decision has been made to go back to just an annual mammogram for now. I feel relieved and grateful.

I’m sharing this experience and my fears because even though it was personal and scary, it’s necessary to schedule those mammograms! They are life saving. Push through that fear- your health is worth it.

I hope that someday soon there will be the technology to do such non-invasive, accurate screenings for all types of cancer, just like there are for breast cancer.

women in black hold up pink ribbons

When it comes to any medical scare, knowing your own body is so important. Noticing changes, in our breasts and beyond, is crucial to being able to advocate for ourselves and our health.

And I know as a white, cis woman, I have better odds at having a doctor listen to and heed my concerns than so many others who are historically overlooked. This is part of why I think self exams and education about screenings are so important. Advocate for yourself, and if you see a physician who won’t advocate for you, switch doctors. It really could be life and death.


 

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Mary B. is a lifelong creative, dreamer, and joy seeker. Born and raised in northern Illinois, Mary attended the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, receiving her B.F.A. in acting, then worked as a sometimes actress/model, sometimes waitress. Mary and her husband got married in Sept 2012, welcomed a son in 2014, moved to Texas from Chicago in 2016, and welcomed a daughter in 2017, completing their family. She self-publishes her musings on marriage, motherhood, and life on her blog, Accidentally Texan,. In her free time {free time--ha!} Mary loves to read, cook {and eat ;)}, work out, swim, travel, and spend time with her family. Mary believes emotional connection is the root of humanity and our collective purpose in life.

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