I have been dreading my first mammogram since I was 12. It makes sense. I spent all of my adolescence watching my mother go through breast cancer and then, when I was 16 and she was 45, she died of it. The experience was enough to give me heart palpitations every time I even considered getting close to the age at which they recommend women start screening.
Current recommendations may seem confusing since the American Cancer Society recently raised the age of first screening from 40 to 45, depending on family history. But for someone with my family history — mother, maternal grandmother with two primary tumors and maternal aunt — it’s a no brainer that I would have to start younger, which is why I found myself in the high risk clinic at 30 getting gene tested and palpated and getting my first mammogram last week at age 38.
To say I was terrified would be a massive understatement. I contemplated taking a Valium. I made my husband come with me. I planned my whole day so I would have something to look forward to afterwards. I assumed it was horribly painful to be compressed and braced myself for the absolute worst.
And all that says nothing about the emotional toll.
Watching a person get sick and die of cancer is horrible for anyone. But I spent my entire adolescence — the entire time in which I was developing breasts — watching my mother go through chemotherapy and radiation, watching her get a mastectomy, and lose her hair. Mouth sores, severe nausea, a jagged scar along her chest where her breast once was — this is what flashes into my head when I see pink ribbons. So it was sickening to walk into the cheerful waiting room outside radiology and be confronted by two giant Mylar balloons in the shape of ribbons — pink, of course.
“I feel nauseous,” I told my husband who pushed me through the door anyway. I knew I had to do it. I have three kids, 9, 7 and 2. They need their mom. And my doctor recommended that, despite studies that suggest mammography could be dangerous, it was still important for me to establish a baseline so that my screenings could be monitored more closely.
Mammography might detect cancers that would otherwise go undetected, which can be a good or bad thing, according to some. There are cancers that apparently get treated because of early screening that may never have grown or hurt the woman. So, it might seem that mammography leads to overtreatment. And maybe it does. But studies have shown that, in countries where access to screening is more readily available, women survive cancer more. Given my family history, my doctor decided the overtreatment and radiation risks were worth it.
The actual procedure was much easier than I thought it would be. It is awkward to stand with one breast exposed and have it compressed into a machine. And yes, it was slightly uncomfortable, though, for me, it wasn’t painful. “It really depends on your pain tolerance,” the tech told me as she forced my breast into position, then compressed it with a clear, plastic tray that looked like I should be eating lunch from it, not smooshing my boob into it.
I have a high pain tolerance. Three drug-free births and countless marathons have made me pretty hardy, so it really did not hurt. And once I was in the process of taking the photos, I was no longer emotional, either. It was just another procedure. I left the office and went straight to the MAC store where I did some retail therapy to calm my jangled nerves and felt smug about my decision to take my health into my own hands.
Two days later my doctor called to warn me that something on the test had been inconclusive. “They saw something, but they won’t know what until they do further testing.” Cue panic and terror. They were able to squeeze me in for a second round of mammograms on my left breast, the place where something “inconclusive” was found and I was told that “now is not the time to seriously worry.”
OK, I won’t seriously worry. But I am still going to worry. My mother’s pain — the whole family’s pain — is etched in my mind. The whole way to the hospital, I imagined putting my own kids though that and questioned whether having them was even a good idea given this legacy of shit I was living with. I cried. A lot. I went through the exact same procedure I’d done two days before. Long wait to check in. Get my bracelet during annoying check-in process. Head to pink-ribbon room. Watch The Rachael Ray Show. Wait.
This mammogram hurt more since it was site specific and they needed to be extra careful. And this time the radiologist planned to review the scans immediately. For 10 minutes, I sat in the dressing room, shaking, alternating between thinking positively and planning my funeral. And then the nurse came back and said, “It was a tech glitch, everything is clear. You can go.”
And that was that. A tech glitch. At 9 a.m. I thought I was dying and by 12:30 p.m. I learned that was just a technical error. I walked back out into the sun feeling relieved and slightly miffed. But mostly relieved. Yes, it was terrifying, but I’d rather they be thorough than not, and I have taken charge of my health by setting up a baseline that can inform all future screenings.
One ruined morning feels a lot better than being blindsided by cancer. Mammograms are imperfect and annoying and scary and uncomfortable. But they are what we have. I won’t be scared anymore. Or, maybe I will be. But I won’t let fear stop me from doing what needs to be done.