It’s not October yet, but as the month approaches I always look back to the event that changed my life. This year I will reach the five-year mark, and I want to share my story with you in hopes that you will see how important early detection and yearly mammograms are.
Five years ago I discovered a lump in my left breast. I had just turned 41 six months earlier. Eight months earlier I’d had my first mammogram at 40 years-old. Just like I was supposed to. The mammogram was clear and I was relieved to be done for the year. I gave it no more thought until I found the lump.
Upon my discovery I promptly scheduled an appointment with my doctor. I didn’t think it was anything to be concerned about, but I also knew not to put it off. It was late October before the doctor could see me. He ordered some labs, which all came back normal; and a diagnostic mammogram.
It would be late November, the day before Thanksgiving before the mammogram could be scheduled. Gotta love healthcare in the US. I went for the appointment and after the mammogram the radiologist wanted to do an ultrasound for a closer look. He gave it a BI RAD score of 4C and then scheduled me for a biopsy.
The biopsy didn’t happen for another couple of weeks. Once again, no one really seemed to be in a hurry. But as the days and weeks kept passing, I was growing more and more frustrated with the timetable.
At the time of the biopsy, the results were found to be invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) about the size of a marble. That was early December. My doctor then scheduled me to see a surgeon. When the surgeon’s office called me, however, they told me that I couldn’t see that particular surgeon until January 31, 2016. I had a redheaded meltdown right there on the phone in my office at work. I told them while everyone was just dragging their feet like it was no big deal, I had something growing inside of me and I wanted it out immediately. I demanded the first available appointment with the first available surgeon in that office. The woman on the phone told me she would have to clear it with my doctor since his orders were for a different surgeon. I told her my doctor was an idiot (he was…after ordering the diagnostic mammogram and returning to him for the results, he asked me why I was in his office that day…don’t get me started). Anyway, I told the lady on the phone that it was my body and I had a right to request another surgeon. She gave me the next available appointment with the next available surgeon, but that was still two weeks out.
I had the surgeon consult mid-December and returned for surgery on December 26. At the time of the surgery the lump had grown to the size of a bouncy ball you get in one of those quarter machines. In four weeks the cancer had doubled in size.
Four weeks isn’t a long time when you are waiting on a vacation, or for school to get out, or for your wedding day. Four weeks is an eternity when you are waiting on surgery to remove cancer from your body. Had I waited to get the lump looked at; had I accepted the timeline for the surgeon; things could have had a much different outcome. I caught it early. It seemed like the lump popped up overnight. My cancer was highly aggressive, but because of early detection the prognosis was good. I still had a very long journey…lumpectomy and lymph node dissection, six rounds of a four-drug chemotherapy cocktail (the first dose took 6.5 hours), two hospital stays (one in ICU after almost dying on my son’s graduation day), 36 radiation treatments, 16 doses of a maintenance drug, and recommended 10 years of tamoxifen (I did one year and ended up with a pulmonary embolism).
Even today, five years after I discovered the lump that changed my life, I still deal with long-term side effects of chemo and radiation. I forget what word I want to say sometimes. I can’t remember anything without writing it down. I still have to go to the oncologist every six months. I still get nervous before every mammogram. I am super-sensitive to changes in my body and there are days when I have to fight the urge to wonder if the cancer has returned. It would be so easy to live there, but I don’t want to. I refuse to let it have anymore of my life than what it’s already stolen.
I am not telling you this so you will feel sorry for me. I’m telling you this so you know how important early detection and yearly mammograms are. It could be the difference between life or death. I know mammograms are uncomfortable, but they sure beat having your port accessed every three weeks or having a sunburn from radiation. And they don’t hurt nearly as bad as radiation fibrosis in your shoulder four years after treatment.
Schedule your mammogram. Make time for self-care. Listen to me. Self-care isn’t selfish. Use your personal days for something that brings you joy. Go get a massage. Get your nails done. Take a weekend by yourself. Do it! You are beautiful and you are worth it.