BY MARY-KATHRYN BYWATERS
A couple of weeks ago I did an ordinary thing— at least, ordinary by today’s standards. I went and got my yearly mammogram. No woman likes to be smashed between two cold steel plates, particularly in that region of her body. But I grimaced at the occasional twinges of discomfort and got through it.
The person performing the mammogram was a nice older woman that I felt comfortable with right away. She was chatty and upbeat, making the visit a pleasant one. I marveled at her friendly efficiency, and secretly hoped to have her next year.
When all was done, she asked me to hang on so she could make sure the images had come out properly. With the scans in hand, she scooted out the door and left me in the room, trying to keep the front of that blasted gown together. Yeah, losing battle.
The technician came back pretty quickly, but I sensed something was not right. Another image needed to be done, I was told, and she was almost over-cheerful about it, a kind of fake happiness that didn’t meet her face. We did it, and again I waited. She came back and told me in a hurried voice I was done. She didn’t look at me. I left, not feeling 100% at ease, but I told myself it was nothing and shook it off. I was both right and wrong.
A week later, I received a letter saying that something was found in my breast, but it was determined as benign. At first I was numb. I never suspected there was something in my breast- I never felt it. Then I got irritated.
What an unforgivable and lousy way to tell a woman she has something in her breast. I had been reduced to a box checked off in a form letter. I know the rationale is that in today’s ultra-busy society, a letter can ensure that the woman gets much-needed information. I appreciate that, I truly do. But I am more than a checked-off box in a letter. It’s my breast and it’s my life and I was damned well going to get some answers beyond “benign.”
So I went to the doctor, and what I learned unsettled me. I have heterogeneous dense breasts. This means that it’s hard for a mammogram to see everything with my kind of breasts. I also learned that I have a cluster of calcifications in one breast. It’s a surreal experience to look at myself in the mirror and know where this thing is.
The doctor who read the mammogram, as well as my family doctor, believe it is not a cancerous cluster. Calcifications aren’t uncommon, and most are benign.The doc was wonderful, took a lot of time to explain, answered questions, and even did a breast exam. But it’s not that easy for me as a woman.
I am being asked to put all my faith, all my trust —my life— into the educated opinion of one doctor. I don’t think I am ready for that. So, armed with the knowledge I have gathered, I’m going to see someone else and get a second opinion.
I may very well get the same good diagnosis from another doctor, and I will welcome that with joy. Yet I need another voice, another set of eyes, and maybe even another test or two to feel at ease. I need to feel like I can walk around and know with some certainty that I am okay. It’s up to me to be pro-active about my health and not just reactive. That’s part of the reason why I’m writing this.
It is normal for me to write, especially when the words are whirling around inside of me like a hurricane. But this. This. I have felt/still feel fragile and frayed and naked. I wasn’t sure at all if I wanted or needed to let my words be found here. I’ve felt frustrated, tearful, and scared at times. It can be hard to know what to do and who to talk to. It can be hard to trust your instincts and your reasoning.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share any of this, especially since I haven’t seen the other doctor yet. But I began to think of what I’ve learned, and perhaps it can be of use to someone else.
So I am writing this private fragile part of myself down into words and maybe, just maybe, it can be of service to someone else. The following are some things I’ve learned. They are basic, not new, and most will say “But, I know that!” Good. Now do yourself a favor and do it. Not later, not next month, NOW.
First, go get that mammogram, and be on time every year. I was late getting mine by several months.
Second, don’t just settle. Ask questions, make appointments, and find other doctors. Do what you have to; get answers you can live with. It’s your life.
Third, do the self exam with your breasts. If you don’t know how, get a doctor to show you. My problem can’t be felt (and that is the wonder of the mammogram—early detection) but many lumps can be detected this way.
Take care of yourself, and don’t be afraid to push. It’s your life.
Author’s note: After I wrote this piece, I saw a wonderful surgeon. I am happy to report that the calcifications are benign. Because of family history, I am considered high risk, and I have chosen to continue under this doctor’s care for my breast health.
Mary-Kathryn Bywaters is a junior.