40. That seems to be the magic number when it comes to mammograms, however women of all ages are encouraged to do monthly self-checks of their breasts. Women who have a family history of breast cancer may be encouraged to begin mammograms earlier.
At 37, I was satisfied with having three years to go until my first mammogram. My family history didn’t raise any concerns. I had an aunt who died of breast cancer when I was a little girl. I didn’t know many details except that she had it, and she passed away. I always shared that with my doctor when we reviewed my family history. Her yearly checks of my breast, and my monthly self-checks never yielded anything, so we didn’t worry.
I’ll never forget when things changed. It was September 2012. I was sitting in bed and my husband walked in. He looked at the t-shirt I was wearing and said, “are you leaking?” The look of puzzlement on my face was warranted since our youngest child was five-years-old at the time and I hadn’t breastfed in almost as many years. When I looked down, however, I noticed my t-shirt was indeed wet. What in the world?!? I immediately ruled out pregnancy since my tubes had been burnt and clipped in 2008 and my uterus was removed in 2010. Still, furthest from my mind was breast cancer. I assumed it was hormonal; perhaps even thyroid related. I booked an appointment with my primary care physician to be sure.
Less than a week later, I was sitting in my doctors office. I hadn’t leaked anymore, and the doctor couldn’t get any fluids to come out during my visit. She didn’t feel any lumps, so she ordered blood work to check my thyroid and pituitary gland. 48 hours later, I had the results. Normal. My doctor scheduled a diagnostic mammogram.
The time frame between my blood work results and my mammogram was about a week, but it felt like an eternity. I began to think of the people I knew who were under 40 and had breast cancer. Most had not survived. I had three, beautiful daughters and a husband who I was not ready to leave yet! I had just earned a degree that I hadn’t had an opportunity to use yet! I prayed, “God, please don’t let this be cancer!” as I entered into the mammogram room.
The mammogram itself was not that bad. I’d heard horror stories about the smashing and posing in uncomfortable positions. Trust me, it’s not a glamor shoot, but it’s doable. Because my mammogram was diagnostic, I was not allowed to leave until the pictures were read by a physician. That doctor came and got me and took me for an ultrasound. Her words were quick and clear – “we’ve found lumps in both breasts.” My head begin to spin, but I didn’t have time to panic because they were immediately preparing me to do an ultrasound to get more detailed pictures. As I lay there, we talked more and she explained that she didn’t think the lumps were cancerous, but instead were intraductal papillomas; benign (non-cancerous) lumps in the ducts of the breasts. Because they were abnormalities, she had to check off a level of risk on my referral to the breast surgeon, but she reiterated as I left that she was fairy certain they were non-cancerous. A biopsy would confirm.
My meeting with the surgeon took place a week later. I was given two options: needle biopsy or surgical biopsy. The basic difference was that the surgical biopsy would not only check the lumps for cancer, but remove them as well. Since I was having symptoms (the leaking), I went for the latter option. The surgeon also showed me how to find the lump in my breast. For the first time, I could literally feel it! That scared me. I couldn’t wait to have it removed.
Surgery was scheduled for the day before Thanksgiving. That meant dinner would not be at my house. I could live with that. I just wanted to make sure I would live, period. It was an outpatient procedure. I was home by rush hour. I had some soreness. I had to wear sports bras and not lift anything over ten pounds for about two weeks. My results confirmed that in the breast where I had the leaking, I did indeed have a papilloma. The other breast was inconclusive, however. We would repeat the mammogram in three months.
January 2013: Clean bill of health. Repeat mammogram in six months.
July 2013: I came skipping into the mammogram office. I was a few weeks shy of 38-years-old and looking forward to celebrating with my girlfriends at the Cincinnati Music Festival. I’d just been to see my regular physician a week prior. My monthly self-breast exam and her check of the “girls” were both clear. I knew everything would be fine. So, when the technician said she needed to “redo the right side with a different lens,” my heart sank. “Not again, Lord!” I sighed. Sure enough, I made that familiar walk to the ultrasound room. Another lump. Since the lump was small and I was having no symptoms, I elected to have a fine needle aspiration this time, but after Cincinnati. I had celebrating to do, just in case it would be my last time.
August 2, 2013: The needle aspiration went so well it scared me! My three tattoos hurt worse! I left the office and walked five miles.
My biopsy results confirmed that I did not have a papilloma this time, but a benign lump.
January 2014: Repeat mammogram and ultrasound of the right breast reveled no new abnormalities. Return in six months.
July 2014: Diagnostic mammogram of both breast. The all too familiar “redo of the right side” happened again. I immediately feared the worst. My husband urged me to remain calm. This time, when they called me back, it wasn’t to the ultrasound room, but to an office with two computers, where the doctor quickly turned around to tell me “all is well! See you next year!”
When I have my next mammogram in July 2015, I will be 40. Though it will not be my first, it’s good to be on the “normal” testing schedule now. I encourage all of you to know your body. Know your breasts. If something isn’t right, call your doctor! Know your family health history (on both sides), eat foods that are proven to reduce cancer risks, and avoid those that increase the risks. I’ve been beef and pork-free since June 2014.
What’s your breast cancer story? Share it today: firstname.lastname@example.org