Women often worry about the mammogram and whether it will hurt. Aside from the fear of what might be, I was not scared of the mammogram. I had one seven years earlier in 2001 when I decided to have a breast reduction. So now that I am a seasoned veteran of the boob-squisher, I can tell you, its uncomfortable – more so mentally than physically. I mean, you are standing there in an open front robe letting a technician gingerly lift your breast up and onto a table. Then for as gently as she prepped the appendage, she will equally smash the hell out of it between two plexiglass plates.
This is my left breast. Cute boob, right? But this isn’t a story about how I have nice boobs. This is a story about how I did not have breast cancer.
Right now, it’s a pretty cute boob. Healthy, normal, and well proportioned (thanks to a reduction). But the odds are that one day, it will be the home of cancer. This is a stark reality for me. Both of my grandmother’s have had breast cancer, one did not survive. My great aunt has had it and aside from my mother, nearly every woman in my family has had treatment for breast cancer. Genetics are stacked against me.
In 2007, I began following the story of Andrea Collins Smith. She was a mother of six and she had Inflammatory Breast Cancer. A rare, hard to detect and almost certainly fatal form of breast cancer. I had never known about IBC before Andrea. But this would not be the last time IBC would demand my attention. Shortly after Andrea passed in 2008, I reconnected with an old classmate on Facebook. It wasn’t long before I learned that she too was fighting IBC. She would eventually lose her long and courageous battle with the disease.
In December of 2009, I woke one morning to a ‘feverish’ breast. It felt like my left breast had been dipped in scalding water. It burned, it itched and it ached. My breast was red, swollen, and the skin was slightly pitted in some areas – all signs of Inflammatory Breast Cancer. I kept it together until I dropped my daughter off at daycare. I barely had my seatbelt on before I was sobbing uncontrollably at the idea of having this disease. Because IBC does not present itself with the classic lump, it can go undetected in breast exams. Everything I had previously read stated that most women were not properly diagnosed with IBC until they were already in Stage 4.
I was absolutely panic-stricken and counted the seconds until my OB/GYN’s office opened and I could call for an appointment.
I won’t leave you hanging here. Like I said, I didn’t and do not have cancer.
What I want to tell you about is the process of finding out that I didn’t have cancer.
Because of the nature of my symptoms, my OB/GYN saw me right away. At my appointment, I was given the usual breast exam. She felt no lumps and agreed that my breast was hot, swollen, and my skin had an abnormal texture to it. By this time, I had not breastfed my daughter for over a year. So there was little chance that these symptoms were the result of a blocked duct or infection. She referred me for a mammogram and an ultrasound.
Don’t worry though, it doesn’t really hurt. Its uncomfortable but not painful and it’s over pretty quickly. And if you have a good sense of humor, it’s kind of like a grown-up, lady version of a Play-Doh Fun Factory. I mean really, who knew it could get squished that flat? For a moment, I wondered if Stretch Armstrong could one day be a reality with the miracle of mammary gland technology.
Because I had no obvious lump in my breast, my OB/GYN also wanted me to have an ultrasound. This would provide an even clearer view into what was happening inside my breast. That’s when the tech found it, the problem area.
Within moments of being dressed, I was being told I needed to have a biopsy. The results of the mammogram and ultrasound were inconclusive and I needed to have a biopsy. I don’t remember a lot past this point. The days were a bit of a blur between scheduling the biopsy and waiting for the dreaded appointment. Of course my mind went to the worst places possible. I spent the next few days wondering about everything I’d miss if I had IBC. What would happen to Christian and Izzy. I cried over how she wouldn’t remember me if I died when she was so young and everything I would miss. And then I cried over how she’d probably develop breast cancer one day as well.
Finally the day of the biopsy came. Christian joined me at the hospital and sat with me in the waiting room as I filled out paperwork. Finally they called me back. The nurse explained that they’d use a local anesthetic and I would only feel pressure. I kept my eyes closed for the procedure but the doctor patiently explained the entire process as he went through it. He numbed the area and then inserted a small biopsy needle. This hollow needle would carve out a section of tissue from the ‘problem area’ that was seen on the ultrasound. After the needle is removed, he would insert a tiny metal pellet into the site. This would serve as a marker in the future to indicate that I had once had a biopsy done on that site.
The needle hurt only the tiniest bit. And believe me, I am a big giant baby when it comes to pain. On a scale of 1-10 it was maybe a 2 – but barely. Honestly the insertion of the pellet was worse because it made sort of a crunchy sound as it went in. But again, nothing really to get worked up about.
The waiting was the hardest part. Finally after about a week, my results were back and I did not have cancer. Apparently the issue was a common side-effect of breast reductions. Blood vessels within my breast were constricting and dying. Those tiny vessels were causing all of that swelling, burning, and that seemingly huge black spot in my breast tissue.
For all the fear and pain I suffered over those few weeks, I’d do it all again just to have an answer. I would have my boobs handled, smashed and poked every day of the week just to get a clean bill of health or catch cancer in its earliest stages if it meant the difference between living and dying. Since my insurance won’t cover that, I’ll just continue with monthly self-exams in addition to my annual office visit. I’m watching my weight, what I eat, I’m exercising and doing what I can to ward off cancer. And because of my family history, this year I will be moving forward with genetic testing. This will help me make some pretty tough decision in regard to my long-term breast health. More importantly though, one day when Izzy is a young woman, it will better help her to know where she stands on the battlefield of cancer.
There is not one of us that will be untouched by breast cancer. Whether we experience it first hand or through our mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, cousins and friends, everyone knows someone that has been touched by this disease. That’s why I want to encourage you to help the Philly Chevy Girls fight the battle against breast cancer. For every new Like on the Philly Chevy Girls page, $1 will be contributed to the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer initiative.
Your simple effort to enable their contributions could very well change what could be my fate and the fate of many others.