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Live Pink: Breast Cancer Awareness Month

November 9, 2013

Last month, I wore a pink ribbon a lot. As most people know, each fall Breast Cancer Awareness month is recognized in each October. When I was five, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time she was just 32 years old and she is a survivor. If I remember the details correctly, she had a double radical mastectomy. Which means my mother had both of her breasts and the underlying lymph nodes and some fatty stuff completely removed. I was a kid at the time, so a lot of the details escape me, but she beat the cancer.

It was the mid-1980s and at the time, the doctors advised her that she could just look like a normal woman in her early 30’s with implants and reconstructive surgery. Silicon implants. Seven years, three sets of ruptured implants and countless surgeries later, my mom said enough. That was around 1990 or so. My mom had her 19th surgery about a year and a half ago. She has so much scar tissue, she can’t lift her arms higher than chest level or so. Her immune and nervous systems are a mess. The level of pain she is in is always high. My Mom was one of the first people who signed on with attorney Stan Chesley in the breast implant litigation against Dow Corning. I have strong feelings about silicon breast implants. I spent many of the afternoons of my childhood waiting in doctor’s offices while my mom had one appointment after the other, which probably explains my aversion to to doctors. Alas, while this is an interesting topic to share, it is not the point of this entry.

The point of this is that I am now 32. The exact same age my Mom was when she found out she had breast cancer.

This is actually the reason I dreaded turning 30, I’ve been terrified that history would repeat itself. Every doctor I’ve ever had knows about the details of my family medical history (which is a lot of really odd stuff). And every doctor I’ve had as an adult has said the same thing: it is odd that someone so young would develop breast cancer, there is family history… therefore I’m a higher risk. And while most women start getting mammograms at 40, I got to start my very first one this summer when I was 32.

It wasn’t exactly how I wanted to spend a morning in late July when I had a lot to get done at work, but I knew I needed to. We have a number of facilities in the area that do just mammograms and all of the staff were so kind. I was incredibly nervous. Internally, I was freaking out as I sat there waiting for my appointment time. I tried to calm myself with the fact that my doctor had said it was just a precaution. I was doing an okay job until another patient came out from the back and was very visibly upset and crying. She was an older woman and quickly went out into the outer lobby to get her husband, and they came back into the inner lobby and stood there together to make an apparent third appointment. Clearly, it was not good news.

This ramped up my anxiety even more, but at the same time made me feel like a horrible, awful, selfish person. Here I was doing something because my doctor wanted to be cautious and take my screwed up genetics into account and here was this other woman who absolutely had a major medical issue and her life just drastically changed. It was very sobering.

The very sweet and kind technician who ran the test for me tried really hard to calm me down and we had some random conversations. Apparently my pupils being the size of saucers and the giant red splotched across my chest gave away my anxiety. There is a reason I can’t play poker, I can’t bluff worth a damn.

So, for those of you who haven’t had a mammogram yet, here is how it goes. Yep, I’m writing about it. Feel free to skip this part if you don’t want to know. You change into a gown just like when you go to the gynecologist, granted you do get to leave your pants on for this one. You have to take off all of your jewelry and any metal that may be somewhere on your body. Then you stand in front of this giant machine, that was surprisingly smaller than I had imagined it to be, and place one breast on a flat plate. Another plate comes down on top of the breast. Then the machine squeezes them together while the image is taken.

Yes, it hurts. Granted not as much as I thought it would. One side hurt more than the other though, which the technician said happens sometimes. In total they run this four times, and take four different images. One from the top to bottom, facing front and then a second on the side, where they try to get a closer image of the lymph nodes along the side. Then they do it to the other breast… so four total. All in all, it took less than 20 minutes once I was taken into the back.

 

A few weeks later I  got this:

mammo

 

Things I learned: according to the technician, it is easier to detect cancer if the woman has had children, because the tissue in the breast is less dense and it is easier to see anomalies. So, it is a strike against me that I haven’t had kids. Humph. Also, easier to detect when you are older because the tissue has broken down more. I’ve also learned that fighting with my insurance company about what they pay and do not pay for is a pain in the ass. Also, I realize that this fear that I’m going to develop breast cancer is never going to go away. And I have to keep figuring out how to best manage that. Yes, I could do the genetic testing… but I don’t know if I want to do that yet. I’ve leaned away from it for a number of reasons, but I’m still processing through it.

 

So, my friends who don’t have to do this for another 8- 10 years, now you know what to expect. Friends who have had it done, did I leave out any part of the process?

*And yes, I know I’m posting this in November. I spent a lot of time on the road in October!

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