When my doctor told me I needed a baseline mammogram, I thought he was nuts. I’m healthy. I work out. I eat right. Well, I try to eat right. I don’t really have a history of breast cancer in my family, other than a grandmother who had something that looked like it could be breast cancer. I don’t think she got treatment, or anything else for that matter. It’s not something we talked about, and she’s still alive and well, so I’m not even sure it was cancer. And don’t baselines begin when you’re 40?
The doc told me he’s been referring his female patients at 35. I turned 35 this year. I remember looking at the business card he’d given me, with a phone number for diagnostic testing at the local hospital. I flipped it around idly in my hands, and scoffed a bit at his suggestion, internally, but was polite to his face. I had every intention of waiting a couple (or few) years. It would just be a waste of time, and money. What’s the rush?
I found out a friend of mine in her 20’s was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. I have a friend whose mother died at a young age from breast cancer, and most of us have seen or read about Amy Robach, the Good Morning America anchor who was recently diagnosed, after her very first mammogram at age 40. These facts compounded inside my head, and I started to recognize how very un-silly it was to get screened. Plus, I’m the type of person who believes in being proactive with my health. What was I waiting for?
Well, I was scared. Which is why it took me a few months to even make the phone call. I’d heard horror stories regarding mammograms, how much they hurt, how awkward and strange the experience can be. Not to mention the stress I knew I’d be under, waiting for the results.
What I share with you is my own experience. I can’t compare with anyone else, but I want to share this with you in the hopes that you won’t be afraid. I won’t lie to you. Getting your breasts placed between two plastic plates isn’t a walk in the park, or enjoyable, but it’s necessary, and not nearly as bad as you’d imagine. Most likely, you will go in and that’s it. No breast cancer. But it could save a life, maybe even your life, just like Amy Robach’s life, or like my friends’ life. She’s going through treatment right now, and her tumor is shrinking. There is hope.
Step one. Make the appointment. I know, it seems like a pain in the ass, but it only takes a few minutes. My appointment was today, at 10:00am. My mother in law is in town, so I figured it was the perfect time. I was told over the phone that it’s a quick procedure, 15 minutes, tops. I was also told not to wear any deodorant, body wash, etc. This can mess with the mammograms. Don’t wear a dress. You’ll need to be able to remove your top and bra, and if you’re wearing a dress, you’ll have to either scoot the dress down around your waist or do your mammogram naked, because all they will provide for you in the waiting room is a hospital shirt that has two buttons on it. No gowns. The mammogram tech wants easy access to your boobs, and wearing a dress makes that difficult.
Step two. Go to the appointment. So there I was, headed for the local hospital. I checked in with the receptionist, and she directed me to registration, where a very nice lady got me all set up and in the system. They asked me for my driver’s license, and my health insurance card. I was given one of those paper bracelets you get when you’re in the hospital (which I’m still wearing). Then, I had a lady liason lead me over to the Women’s Center, where I was directed to a waiting room. The waiting room was nicely decorated, and a few other ladies were already sitting there with their hospital shirts on. I was given a changing room, which had moist towelettes in case I needed to remove any deodorant from my body. I was allowed to leave my shirt and bra in there, and given a key to the changing room. I put on my hospital shirt, locked the changing room door and joined the ranks.
Step three. Talk to other women who have been through this experience before. One woman was recovering from her stage 2 cancer diagnosis and treatments. Another was getting her yearly mammogram. They were heavily promoting self-checks and yearly mammograms, and thought it was really cool that I was starting at 35. I asked them how they felt about the whole mammogram experience, and one piped in with, “It’s like learning a new yoga posture. You’ll see what I mean.” Then she winked at me. I was super nervous, but I felt as though there was unity in that little room, a camaraderie between all of us.
Step four. Listen to the technician. The one I had the pleasure of working with has been in the biz since 1990. She asked me questions, like “how many children have you had” or “do you have a history of breast cancer in your family”. I asked her what I should expect from the mammogram, and she told me for every woman, it’s different. She suggested for those with sensitive breasts, to take some tylenol or ibuprofin roughly 30 minutes before the screening. It takes the edge off. She was very patient and calm, and when I stepped up to the plate (no kidding, it’s a plate), she took me step by step through it. She grabbed another plate from the wall of plates to the left of her (a different plate size to accommodate different sized breasts) and pushed the plate into the top slot. I took a step forward, and placed my breast up onto the bottom plate, and she positioned my breast so that the entire tissue was on the plate. She told me that I needed to let her know when I felt as though I’d reached my point of uncomfortable. The bottom plate shifted up a bit, and then the top plate slid down slowly, pressing down. Then she twisted a knob on the side of the mammogram machine, to tighten it a bit further. I figured it was going to hurt a lot worse than it did. I imagined I’d be screaming and begging for her to release the plate, but it wasn’t anywhere near that bad. After a few seconds of pressure, it was over. She repeated the steps to get a frontal view and side view of each breast. The side view was a little more awkward, because I had to position my breast sideways while still keeping my hips and body centered. This must have been the “yoga posture” the one lady had referred to. The mammogram machine turns to the side to get the view it needs to get, because you have breast tissue under your armpits, too.
Step five. Ask questions. The technician let me see my images. I have no clue what I was looking at, and when I asked if she could tell me anything, she said she couldn’t. A skilled radiologist would examine the images, and I would get a phone call with the results in the next day or two. She also told me NOT to worry if I’m asked to come back in for more scans. Sometimes, not much can be seen from the initial images, or there might be something that looks odd that needs to be re-looked at. She told me not to jump to conclusions. She also told me to remember where I had my initial screening. If I chose to get my next mammogram done elsewhere, doctors can compare the recent image with the original one I’d done in the baseline.
Step six. Time to go. That was really all there was to it. I went back to the changing room, and used my key to unlock the door. After I was dressed and ready to go, I noticed the basket for used hospital shirts but completely spaced it, and carried the shirt with me out of the waiting room. Luckily, the liaison who’d helped me to the room was out in the hallway, and she kindly offered to take care of the shirt for me. I told her, “it wasn’t as bad as I imagined it would be.” And she said, “If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that!”
I’m not freaking out over the results. The thing is, the women I talked to this morning inspired me. They are alive, and thriving. We always hear about the death and destruction that cancer causes, which it does. I know it does. We don’t often hear about these women, though. The ones who are survivors, the ones who went in every year, even though mammograms suck, or the ones who performed the self-breast exams. The ones who go in and save their own lives through being proactive, and fight hard, kicking cancer’s ass. That’s how I’d want to be, if my results aren’t in my favor. These women gave me hope, and at times, I know that’s all we have to go on, is hope. If they could survive, then I know I’ve got a fighting chance.