What came next wasn’t the walk in the park I had expected. As a technician placed my right breast on a cold, flat surface and remotely navigated the machine to clamp down, I could feel the edges of the plate scraping against my ribs. And the pressure was intense. I asked why it was necessary to squeeze so hard. The technician explained that compression reduced breast thickness so we get a clearer picture of my breast tissue. There’s debate within the medical community about whether more compression leads to clearer pictures and hence, lives saved. Either way, from the feel of it, my radiologist would have a crystal clear picture with which to do her thing. I was told to hold my breath—easy because I was doing it anyway. The technician promised me it would be over quick. I shed a single tear and bit my lip. I guess “hurt a little” is a relative phrase. It was fast, as promised, but I was a lot less confident as she arranged my body to capture different angles and the other breast. Then it was over.
As I sat in a room with several other women, communally waiting for our individual reports, a thought popped into my head: What if I had cancer? I had been brushing off this event as a rite of passage. Getting a mammogram was what you did when you turned 40. Getting cancer wasn’t.
I thought about my grandmothers, both of whom had breast cancer. It wasn’t a stretch to think that I could get it too. For the very first time, I felt scared. Heartbreaking stories of friends of friends who were diagnosed with breast cancer at unfairly young ages haunted my thoughts as I waited…and waited…and waited. I thought about my kids. I thought about my husband. I thought about what it must be like to be one of the 250,000 women who will get a routine mammogram this year and hear the words, “I have some bad news” from a doctor. And then I stopped thinking because I started to feel sick.
I looked around the room, spotted some complimentary snacks on a side table, and dug in.
I’m an emotional eater.
A technician called my name and silently brought me to a room filled with sonogram equipment. They needed to look at a few things more closely. I started to panic a little. I didn’t know at the time that it’s fairly common for women to need additional or alternate images (especially if it’s your first time or if you haven’t yet gone through menopause) and being called back does not mean you have cancer.
The room was dark and cozy and since I was able to watch the technician’s facial expressions as she rolled the hand-held device over my breasts, I was able to calm down. I decided that since she didn’t look nervous, there was no reason for me to be.
About an hour later, I heard the magic words: “Everything looks fine. Please come back in a year.” It turns out I’m riddled with harmless cysts, causing the extreme discomfort from the mammogram—dense, cystic breasts are just more sensitive to the compression—and the need for the follow-up sonogram. However, because women with dense breasts are at an increased risk to develop breast cancer, I was encouraged to turn my birthday mammogram into an annual tradition.
My birthday wish had come true. Pain and scary thoughts be damned. Peace of mind makes for a joyous gift.
My breasts and I sprung out of the imaging center with a relieved smile (me) and a perky bounce (all of us).