One night not too long ago, I stretched out on my bed and started thinking about Amanda. She’s well liked in the blogging space, we’ve met a few times, and she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. At the age of 32.
Remember years ago when girls were posting random colors as their Facebook statuses? “Pink!” “Black!” “Tan!” “Invisible! ;)” Many were posting the colors of their bras for the sake of breast cancer awareness. I majorly eye-rolled at that (seriously, who are we helping?) and I’ve sort of eye-rolled at every pink item I’ve seen since. I get the pink shirts and I get the pink ribbon magnets, maybe. But pink pepper spray? Pink power drills? Pink Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets?
“Why…” I asked in hushed tones, realizing how incredibly wrong it sounded “…are we still doing this? Who is not aware that breast cancer exists? How many pink things do we actually need? Who needs awareness? ”
Apparently, I do! As I thought about Amanda, I realized it’d been quite awhile since I did a self-exam, and I’ve relied entirely too much on that yearly exam to be enough. So I did one, right then, and felt a lump in my left breast. I admonished myself with a “WELL I FEEL DUMB NOW,” grabbed my phone and texted Mallory the Midwife to see if she was in the office within the next week.
~*BrEaSt eXaM TiMe!!*~ Maybe your OB/Gyn practice is like mine, and puts posters of cute animals on the ceiling to distract you while you’re getting a pelvic exam. “Oh look at the little pengu — GUUUUUIINNNN hngngggg.”
“I feel it. Let’s get you set up with an ultrasound.” I asked Mallory some questions, particularly about research I found that said that lumps are really common, and 80% of them are benign.
“Yes, in fact, I’d say at your age, that number is probably closer to 95%. I’ve actually only ever felt breast cancer two times. Keep in mind though, that most of my patients are my age or younger. I just think it’s always good to get an ultrasound.”
I put off calling for a couple of days, but the office was having none of that, so they called me and scheduled an appointment for the next morning. They don’t mess around. I had decided to not tell people about it, because it seemed uneventful. The stats were in my favor, and I felt like nothing was cause for alarm. Jack would have breakfast with the girls in the morning and take them to camp, and I would head off to my ultrasound. At around 7p, the night before, I suddenly got a little nervous, and texted Sunnie. “Hey, NBD, I have a breast ultrasound tomorrow morning and it’s mostly likely nothing, but I’m suddenly a little nervous? Are you working?”
Sunnie arrived at my appointment before I did, chai and a muffin in hand. Everyone needs a Sunnie.
My appointment was at the Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale. It’s a lovely, highly-praised facility, and I knew I’d be in good hands. (HA! GET IT?! Sorry.) I was led to a little room where I could change into a robe. The rooms are nice, not too sterile-feeling, and if it wasn’t for the distinct smell of disinfectant, the fluorescent lighting, and the fact that I was still wearing pants, it would be almost spa-like. I sat and did a little waiting with Sunnie in a small room with other women in robes.
“I’m only a tiny bit nervous, but you know.. when I get nervous.. I sometimes tell really bad jokes or make inappropriate observations.”
“Like today I was thinking… [inappropriate comment]”
“Yeah, that was… really bad. Okay, here’s what I want you to do. When you go in there, don’t say anything. Just focus on breathing. But, uh, don’t talk.”
“I told you.”
A nurse walked up to us and said, “Are you Roo? Come with me. I need to talk to you” in a super stern You’re going to the principal’s office now voice. I panic briefly. She sits me in another room.
“I see the order for an ultrasound, but we’re going to have to do a mammogram, too.”
“A mammogram??” Mammograms are for women over 40, right?
“Yes. You need a mammogram to go with this ultrasound, since you’re over 30. We do mammograms for people over 30 when they come to the Breast Center. I’ll call your doctor’s office, but I think they’ll also suggest that we do a mammogram since you’re over 30.”
SAY I’M OVER 30 ONE MORE TIME. “Oh, okay.” She brings me back to the waiting room and I fill Sunnie in, who had also panicked slightly, because a stern “I need to talk to you” from a stranger is a little ominous, you know?
Okay, cool. So I’m having a mammogram. “I hear these hurt,” I tell the nurse.
“No, they’re just slightly uncomfortable.”
LOL NO. They’re like getting your breasts caught in an elevator door. I mean, it’s bearable, but your underwear riding up is slightly uncomfortable. A strapless bra is slightly uncomfortable. A mammogram does not feel great, but it’s fine. Important! Get ’em! Thankfully, it was over soon. Back to the waiting room. Ultrasound tech brings me to the ultrasound room.
“The radiologist looked at the images from the mammogram, and she’d like me to do an ultrasound of your right breast, too.” Which seems a little weird, because the lump is in my left breast, but why not, right? I’m here, and my shirt’s already off, so…
The ultrasound – if you’ve not had one – doesn’t hurt at all. It’s a dark room and you’re lying down and I could have easily fallen asleep. When she was finished, the radiologist and the resident came in to do one, too.
“You felt the lump in your left breast, is that correct?”
“The lump in your left breast is actually a cluster of cysts, completely benign. Nothing to worry about.”
“But there is a tumor in your right breast.”
“And it’s probably benign.”
“Yes. It looks like a fibroadenoma. Totally normal for women your age. We’ll just monitor it and have you come back in six months for another ultrasound. There’s an increased risk of breast cancer in women that have tumors, but we don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
So then we talked a little bit about genetic testing. My mom had ovarian cancer fairly young, and my cousin was diagnosed with uterine cancer very, very young. Ovarian and breast cancer are directly linked, and now studies show that uterine and breast cancer are also linked. We discussed a little bit about how my family history likely puts me at an increased risk for all three, but it’s not sure how increased. Genetic counseling could help with that. The radiologist gave me the number for a genetic counselor.
“She’s Russian, but she speaks English.”
“Good, because my Russian’s actually a little rusty.” (SORRY, SUNNIE. They both laughed, though? Pity laugh, maybe?)
They gave me a sheet with information from the day, and checked off the box that said “Probably benign. More monitoring needed.” Fibroadenomas are totally normal in women ages 15 to 35, so I’m not worried about it at all. I’m sure many of you will be able to weigh in and put others at ease “Yeaaa fibroadenomas! Me too!”
I’m glad for all of the info, because it’s lit a fire under me to be more proactive about my health. Mallory called me and we talked some more about some testing, and I called my insurance company to get things in motion. I wanted to write out this (long, probably boring) blog post to relay a couple of messages.
1) Check yo self. One a month is great. Here’s a handy (PUN!) chart.
2) Now that I’m in my thirties, there are more things with which I need to be aware. I could get away with being careless at 18. It’s probably time to be a little bit more responsible. A gentle reminder to schedule your yearly exam if it’s been awhile.
3) Ultrasounds and mammograms are NBD. I mean, mammograms don’t feel great, but neither do dental checkups or lace thongs. Bring a Sunnie if you’re feeling nervous.
4) Not everything is fool-proof. As much as I disliked the mammogram, I’m so glad I had it. Even with the breast exams, we wouldn’t have discovered the tumor in my right breast without it. It even went undetected with the first pass on the ultrasound with the ultrasound tech.
5) It’s your right to advocate for yourself. I could call Mallory and say, “Hey.. you know I’m not feeling so great about waiting a full six months. Can we do a check in three?” and she’d be happy to talk about that option with me.
Want to read more about yearly pelvic exams? Check out The Virtues of Paper Gowns. Want to read more about being ovarian cancer aware? (I highly recommend; symptoms are completely non-specific. Over 60% of women who are diagnosed are already in Stage 3.) Check out Weighty. Waiting.
Cool. Being aware is cool. Still not buying a pink visor, though. Comeonyouguys.