The following thoughts about mammograms are completely subjective, as I try to process my third false alarm from one of these images. If this keeps happening it will be ever more tempting to abandon the practice of getting one every year. Yes, mammograms are supposed to be responsible for saving countless lives, but I cannot help wondering how many other lives have been repeatedly thrown into a tailspin by one false alarm after another.
My mother’s breast cancer was found “early” on a mammogram in the autumn of 1987 and was thought to have been caught in time so that a lumpectomy would be all that was needed. Three and a half years later, after the lumpectomy, and then a mastectomy, and many rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, she died in the spring of 1991, age 59. It was awful for all of us, including her elderly parents. This family history seems to make my doctors hyper-vigilant about any possible little thing seen on my mammograms.
In the autumn of 1995 I had my first suspicious mammogram at the age of 38. I froze with fear until an ultrasound was done and it was determined that it was “just a cyst.” I was told that I have fibrocystic breast disease. After doing some research and seeing a naturopath, I began taking evening primrose oil for help with the cysts and it seemed to work for a several years. Eventually I tapered off from taking it… and then… in the spring of 2008… another suspicious mammogram. But this time there was a cluster of calcifications that called for closer inspection with a stereotactic biopsy – outpatient surgery. This time the wait for test results was longer, and the surgeon left a little piece of titanium in my breast for future reference, to show where the tissue had been removed, just in case. We rearranged vacation plans and sat on pins and needles until the negative results came back, four days later. Phew!
Well, now less than two years later still another suspicious mammogram to panic over. This time I was told there was something there about 2 cm in diameter and I was scheduled for an ultrasound and then a surgical consult. This sounded pretty ominous and so our lives have been unsettled and on hold again.
Monday I went in for the ultrasound and a very kind technician pulled up my digital mammogram on the computer monitor to see what it was she would be examining. I could see the little speck of titanium and I asked her to point out to me the new trouble spot. She pointed to an oval-shaped object and as I focused on it I noticed there were two other ovals nearby in the image. So, I asked her what about that particular oval was a cause for concern. Something about a defined edge, but the other two ovals seemed to have edges that looked just as defined to my untrained eyes.
Well, it turned out to be “just a cyst, and not even a solid one.” That’s it??? All these rattled nerves and a week of sleepless nights for a benign cyst??? My reaction has been a dazed combination of relief and exasperation. There’s got to be a better way. On the way home I asked Tim to stop at a store where I picked up some more evening primrose oil. Maybe it will work again. Tim made all the phone calls to the kids and my sister so they could stop worrying and I took a long nap. Tuesday I started to get, not surprisingly, a post-stress migraine, so I took a Zomig and slept most of the day. Today the wind is howling and the rain is coming down heavy – perfect weather for another nap. Maybe it will take a week of afternoon naps to recover from a week of sleepless nights, but eventually I’ve got to get myself together again and carry on and somehow be willing to submit to still another mammogram next year… Just in case…