I've been very open about the fact that I'm a paranoid. My brain is wired such that my natural tendency is to think worst case scenario first, before I tap into my more rational, probability- and facts-based side. I see cough and fever and I think pneumonia. Present me with an angry looking pimple that mysteriously showed up and I think flesh-eating bacteria. It doesn't help at all that I enjoy watching shows dealing with medical mysteries or cases of rare, fatal diseases.
So you can only imagine my thought process when I got a call back from the doctor's office after my screening mammogram. I've gone yearly for at least four years now and it's always been something I took for granted. I go in and then get a letter or call a few days later stating that everything looks normal.
Not this time.
I hung up the phone and couldn't breathe. My first thought of course was 'Cancer', followed by 'Oh-my-God-how-will-I-break-the-news-to-my-family-and-what-a-crappy-Christmas-this-will-be'.
Before I could even sit down and fully make sense of the initial phone call, my phone rang again. This time, it was from the imaging facility. I said I wanted the earliest availability and was stunned to hear that they were scheduling me for Jan 18!
"That's your earliest?!", I said with disbelief and frustration.
The woman confirmed and that was it. I hung up the phone and focused my thoughts on how I could possibly survive the next month without giving in to a nervous breakdown.
For the next couple of days, I found myself plagued with thoughts of dying. I'd be driving and the singular thought I had was 'I have cancer'. And then I found myself obsessing over my right breast. I wish I could say I meant all that in a sexy way but it was by no means pleasurable. I self-examined and wondered if what I was feeling was a lump. I suddenly noticed every non-symmetrical part of my torso and wondered if that was what they saw. Could there be more than one? Is it because I've been overweight all my life? I knew I should have eaten more spinach and kale and blueberries. And maybe I should stop drinking too much from plastic bottles? Maybe it's that bottled water I use while I'm on the treadmill. I really should throw that away now. Or maybe it's all the processed meats I've been consuming. Dammit, I knew there was something to that antiperspirant article I read years ago! I should have listened!
Then I started imagining what life would be like if I did have cancer. My rational side knew that less than 10% of women who are called back for a mammogram get a cancer diagnosis. I had read that most of the time, the initial images were just not clear, that it may be dense breast tissue, calcification or some benign cyst or mass. The odds were in my favor.
But what if I'm part of the unlucky percentage?
I then became hostage to even more morbid thoughts and started to imagine how a cancer diagnosis would change my family's life. I wasn't even so concerned with what I would have to go through but more with the suffering such a diagnosis would subject my boys to. I don't want them to be affected by the need to care for me, or suffer in pain as they watch my body getting weaker. Who will take over everything that I do now? Who will prepare meals for my son and husband? Who will keep the house in order? Who will drive my son to school and all his doctor's appointments? Who will wash their clothes? Who will monitor his school work closely?
My thoughts were clearly spiralling out of control and I needed to just stop and take a breath.
All this is imagined and I need to focus on knowing the facts first.
Finally, the long-awaited appointment came. My husband went with me to the facility and both of us did our best to seem calm. The wait wasn't too long, just enough to let my neurotic mind wander again through a couple what if's before it went to what the hell, let's get this over with!
A nice lady named Monica called me in and immediately explained to me what needed to be done. She made sure I knew that the reason for my call back was because of something they needed to look at more closely on my right breast. Before we proceeded, I thought I might as well be honest with her.
"Monica, do you know if I'd get the results today, which ever way it turns out? It's just that I've been called for this appointment a month ago and I've already been anxious for one month. I can't take it anymore."
She smiled compassionately and I knew she understood. Fortunately, she assured me that I would know either way. She explained that they schedule everyone for an ultrasound after the regular mammogram in case the Radiologist wants to further investigate an area. But if my mammogram satisfies the doctor, then I'd be sent home and will be cleared.
With that, I said, "Alright, let's do this!" At that point, I think my brain was way too spent to even be afraid. I just wanted to know and move on with it.
After a few minutes on the torture device, a few adjustments on the paddles to squeeze my tiny breast and cause me mind-numbing pain, it was over and the clarity I've been needing is finally within reach.
Monica asked me to approach and join her in viewing the screens she had in front of her. She pointed out to me the image from my December mammogram where there was a white spot behind my nipple area that the doctor found suspicious. After pointing out to me what the white and black areas represented, I understood that it's not as simple as looking for white circular things that could be masses. Rather, it's a comparison between past and present images. Monica explained that breast images are pretty much like finger prints unique to each person. So when they see something that wasn't there previously, then it's a red flag that they need to further investigate.
In my case, after spreading and compressing my breast really well this time around and taking additional images, the suspicious circular spot disappeared, indicating that it may have been just dense breast tissue or something caused by hormonal fluctuations.
Monica left me in the room for a bit to show the results to the doctor and when she returned, she happily told me that an ultrasound was no longer needed. I can come back for my regular mammogram after a year!
She hugged me and told me it was time to party! I'm sure she felt my gratitude given how tightly I hugged her and how I couldn't stop smiling. In the dressing room, I finally let out one deep exhale.
I wish I could say without a doubt that this would be my first and last call back for a mammogram. But let's be real. I'm just 43 and it's probably going to happen again for as long as I keep showing up for my annual check up. And as anxiety-inducing as the whole experience is, I would never advise anyone to skip their mammogram. It's inconvenient. It's uncomfortable, even painful for some of us. But it's life saving. The earlier you find out if there is anything to be concerned about, the higher your chances for survival.
If you do get a call back, I have some advice to share.
I won't tell you not to be anxious because I think it's natural. However, there are certain things you can definitely remember to help calm you down.
Choose very well who you will share the information with that you got a call back. Share only with those who you know have gone through it and might help calm you down, or those who you know don't tend to overreact or over-worry. I consciously did not share with my mother because I did not want her to worry unnecessarily. But Mom, if you're reading this now, please rest assured that I'm okay! :-)
Another important advice I can give is for you to focus on the things you can control. Be proactive in asking for the earliest possible appointment. The shorter your wait, the less anxiety you'll have. I can attest that waiting for a month felt like an eternity. Hopefully, you won't have to wait as long as I did.
You can also control the questions you need to ask your doctor or mammogram technologist. Don't be afraid to admit how you feel and that you would appreciate them being completely open about the findings. The best decision I made was to let the technologist know that I would very much want to know the results right after my mammogram. I also appreciate that she showed me the images and I was able to ask for clarifications.
Also, don't forget that you can control your thoughts. In a way, it was good that the holidays kept me busy. I knew I had to push my paranoia on the back burner because there were far more urgent things to attend to. And for those times when the fears were just too much? I turned to prayer. Sometimes it wasn't even the spiritual aspect of it but the repetitive nature of it. It calms the brain and will help you fall asleep.
I asked myself multiple times what I would do if I was given the dreaded cancer diagnosis and the answer is always the same— I would fight with all that I have. Is there really any other alternative? It's not that I am afraid of death, but to love another is to fight hard for whatever time is left for you to share with each other. I would hate to break my son's and husband's hearts by not choosing to fight hard.
None of us know what tomorrow holds or how much time we are given. But for as long as you are able to make decisions for yourself, take advantage. The choice to fight and how to fight is all within your control.