Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mammograms Are a Pain, But Cancer is Worse

“It’s difficult to get a good picture of your breasts because they’re so dense,” explained the mammographer.

I looked at her. “You’re telling me my breasts are dense? Isn’t that why they’re called boobs?”

Offending my girls notwithstanding, I got a phone call from the Breast Imaging Department of Lawrence & Memorial Hospital the day after my annual mammogram, asking me to come back in so they could do a follow-up with a more specialized mammogram. I was concerned. The representative on the phone couldn’t give any more information and advised me to call my doctor if I wanted more details. I opted not to panic and call my doctor. I was going to be fine.

When I’d gone in for my regular squishing of the breasts the day before, I had not anticipated any problems. Cancer does run in my family, but no relatives have had breast cancer. It’s a small reassurance, but doesn’t guarantee anything. The mammographer that day, Katy, had been quite talkative and we enjoyed a rather lengthy conversation about our sons in college. I even wondered if I was distracting her too much as she took images. In retrospect, maybe bonding with the mammographer isn’t always a good thing.

Women generally complain about the pain caused by a mammogram. I decided long ago that it’s merely uncomfortable momentarily and not nearly as painful as those stiff, sharp-edged, square things the dental hygienist puts in your mouth to get X-rays. “Bite down and hold,” she instructs as I feel the insides of my cheeks slice open. I’d take a mammogram over dental x-rays any day.

I tried to hide my concern about going in for a follow-up mammogram. Jay asked if he should come with me, but I excused him. I rationalized that the mammographer wouldn’t be able tell me anything immediately anyway and I’d have to wait until the next day to get results. We talked in general about how much better cancer detection and treatment is today than it was even ten years ago.

Against my better judgment, I played the “what if’s” in my head as I drove to the hospital. If they found something, I’d probably just tell my sister at first. If it came to a biopsy and that was bad news, then I’d tell the rest of my family. No need to worry anyone unnecessarily, especially my mother who is living with liver cancer (and doing extremely well, thank goodness).

At the hospital, my mammographer of the day was Lisa; friendly, but not as talkative as Katy. I saw breast images on her screen and asked if those were mine, hoping to get a clue about the problem. “I can tell how cold the room was,” I joked. Lisa laughed politely and got down to business. They needed to concentrate on a specific area of my right breast. She used the analogy that if you imagine the breast as a bag of marbles, not all of the marbles are seen clearly when the bag is compressed in an effort to get a 2-dimensional picture of a 3-dimensional object. Her goal was to single out a few marbles. I resisted a “losing my marbles” crack.

Remember what I said before about mammograms just being temporarily uncomfortable? Not so much on the follow-up when a more specific area is compressed. It was a gasp-areyouserious-thisfrickinghurts-hurryupdammit-pain. There were red marks left behind that would surely turn black and blue. Lisa apologized and advised Tylenol when I got home. I was certain this called for ice packs and a glass of wine too.

As I held my whimpering breast, Lisa informed me that the mammogram review doctor was in and she’d be back momentarily to give me the results. Really? No waiting for hours, days possibly, mentally torturing myself with more “what if” scenarios? I sat down, still wearing my hospital-issue blue cotton top while Lisa left me alone in the room. A few minutes later, Lisa returned. “You’re fine,” she smiled. “You can go home.”