Wednesday, February 1, 2012

One Woman's Story: The Courage to Get My Mammogram

Written by Melissa F. Banuchi

Since the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which has been studying years of data on breast cancer in women, as to what age women should start having mammograms and how often they should have them, released their findings in 2009, they have been engaged in a prickly debate with the American Cancer Society (ACS). According to the task force, women who are not considered high-risk for breast cancer can wait until age 50 to start having mammograms, and only need to have them every two years, as routine screenings before age 50 may actually do more harm than good. The ACS maintains that all women should have mammograms every year starting at age 40. As a result, women are confused, and breast cancer survivors under the age of 50 are furious, noting that early detection saved their lives.

Blame It on Egg Salad
I admit it, I avoided getting a mammogram. Yes, there’s a long and pretty gross story about my mom getting a horrible case of food poisoning a couple of hours after having her breast biopsied (lump detected by mammogram) from eating egg salad my sister made. I’ll spare you the details of her suffering (and how scared and stressed I was while taking care of her) for the next five days. Suffice it to say that although this was twenty some odd years ago (and my mom’s biopsy came back all clear), my mom still ‘accuses’ my sister of trying to kill her (plausible), and I have avoided anything medical that has to do with my breasts. I never said my reason was a good one. Fears are rarely rational.

Each January during my annual gynecological exam (without fail – no fear there), my doctor looks in my patient file for (and can’t find) my recent mammogram results (because there aren’t any). As you can imagine, every year I get the same lecture while she scribbles my name, checks off some boxes, and signs a referral form for me to get one at the local medical imaging center, before handing it to me. I always intend to go (really - I forgave egg salad years ago, I could do the same for breast procedures, I reasoned), but then I get busy, misplace the referral, and oh my, another year goes by and I find myself once again in a cotton gown getting the same lecture and another referral form from my doctor.

Biting the Bullet
But something changed a few months ago as my 45th birthday approached. Suddenly, having a mammogram seemed like a good idea. A quick phone call and my doctor was only too happy to mail me another referral form to replace the most recent one I ‘lost’. It arrived in October. Last week, after my 45th birthday, I finally bit the bullet, made the appointment and went in for my mammogram.

Valerie, the nurse/technician (?) who came to get me from the waiting room, couldn’t have been nicer. She led me to a small but comfortable, private dressing room, handed me a key to it, and told me to undress completely from the waist up, put the gown on with the snaps in front, leave all my stuff, and meet her across the hall when I’m ready. Easy enough.

Dressed in my gown (snaps in front), I closed my dressing room door behind me, ventured across the hall and found Valerie right where she said she would be, waiting for me. The room was what I expected; beige, health posters, her command center (a small booth in the corner) and the mammogram machine. What I didn’t expect, but came to know intimately and greatly appreciate, was a bed-sized, very pretty handmade quilt with brightly colored fan shapes smartly hung on the wall that I was about to be facing during my entire mammogram, about 15 inches from my face. Could anyone feel stressed when admiring the beautiful fabrics, pattern, handiwork, and love that went into making this quilt? Not I. A+ on their art selection! Genius.

As Easy as 1-2-3….Really
As I stood facing the machine and admiring the quilt, Valerie maneuvered the clear bottom plate, placed my breast on it, and gave me very concise (and even funny) directions for how to position my shoulders, chin, back, and arms. She even told me to stick my butt out, as doing so would help push my chest forward. Huh? It made no sense to me, but who am I to argue when she’s controlling the boob presser? Once I was properly positioned (read: completely contorted), Valerie pushed the “down” button with her right foot, and I braced myself as the machine lowered its clear top plate and flattened my right breast. I was already holding my breath (anticipating pain) when she told me not to move and to hold my breath as she stepped into her booth. A second or two later I heard the click, and smiled, as the top plate rose immediately, freeing me. Guess what? It wasn’t bad… all! I was elated! The machine spun a quarter turn in one direction and we repeated the process: Tush out, arm up, chin back, hold your breath, click, release. One more time with a quarter turn in the other direction, and it was time for my left side. By then I was a pro, and the three painless ‘position-clicks’ were over in no time. Holding my body as Valerie kindly directed was a bigger deal than having my breasts pressed by the plates.

I was shocked when Valerie mentioned that it had been five years since my last mammogram, while telling me that the results would be sent to my gynecologist, who would then contact me in about ten days. Five years, really? Given the prickly ongoing debate over the federal guidelines for mammograms, I’m not sure if my fear-induced avoidance was a good thing or bad. As the results of my mammogram came back “normal” today (thank God!), one might think that it’s easier for me to feel okay about avoiding it for so long, but it’s not. I feel lucky, not proud. Believe me, if my results came back detecting something, I would have a hard time forgiving myself for being such a chicken (that’s an understatement)!

Trusting Your Gut
Giuliana Rancic, a host of E! News underwent a double mastectomy in December, 2011 at age 37, after being diagnosed with breast cancer a few months earlier. She has shared her journey and experience openly and credits “trusting her gut” (and getting a mammogram before age 40) with saving her life. As a result of my own experience, I encourage readers to replace any fears with curiosity, find a doctor you trust, talk to them, get educated, hear their advice and follow your gut. Being busy is a poor excuse.

Tonight I’m going to celebrate overcoming my fear, my good news (and good luck) with an egg salad sandwich…..made by me, not my sister.

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