Cancer. A six letter word that wasn’t in my vocabulary. At least not until recently. I was proud that I could check “Excellent” when asked about my health. I had treated my body well, eating the right foods, maintaining a good weight, and being active.
I was vigilant in my well woman check-ups which included a yearly mammogram beginning at the age of forty. I did them as a matter of routine, never wasting a moment worrying about the call that would inform me that all was well. In seventeen years of habitual imaging, I was never told that my breasts were dense. I wasn’t even aware that such information might be important in the reliability of the positive reports I was getting each year.
My story doesn’t have a beginning as I cannot pinpoint the moment I
became aware of the change in the nipple of my left breast. Trusting the
predictable results of my last mammogram, I paid little attention, dismissing it as
a normal outcome of aging. After all, it had only been a month or two since I
received the call that nothing was amiss in my recent imaging. As months passed, I noticed my nipple becoming visibly inverted, causing me to wonder enough to check for a lump while showering. I found nothing and so continued my busy life as a mother and elementary school teacher, pushing any nagging worries from my mind. My naïve trust in the reliability of mammograms would eventually result in hearing the words no one expects to hear.
Eleven months since my previous mammogram found me sitting on a hard chair at an imaging center, wearing the typical stiff paper gown with the opening at the front. The routine mammogram had been completed, but unlike other years, I wasn’t dismissed to get dressed. I had been asked to wait as it had been determined more imaging would be required.
I picked up a magazine, hoping to become distracted from the uncertainty that was creeping into my mind. Staring at the same page, I reflected on my mother who once had a lump in her breast, the surgery, and the good news of the benign results. Surely, my experience would be the same, if indeed something was found. Trying to remain positive, I reassured myself that this was just a cautious check and I would soon be out of here, free to resume my plans for the day.
As the technician walked me into the ultrasound room, little did I know my steps were the beginning of a journey I was not prepared to take. My mind raced in circles as I was positioned on a hard table, placing my left arm over my head. I tried to calm my thoughts by staring at a stain on the ceiling, but as I listened to the clicks, followed by rapid typing on the computer, fear consumed me.
The ultrasound took about twenty minutes. No words were spoken, but my mind was jumping all over the place. What was she seeing on the machine? Why was additional imaging necessary? Maybe I should have made an appointment when I first discovered my inverted nipple. How long was I going to be required to lay in this awkward position? And finally, but only once I allowed myself to think, What if its cancer?
After taking multiple pictures of what seemed like every inch of my left breast, I was finally allowed to sit on the edge of the table and I watched as the technician typed a report. As she finished, the uncomfortable silence was shattered by the shrill ring of the phone. The technician answered, speaking softly, with my ears catching enough legible phrases to make me hope this conversation wasn’t about me. Then I heard the words I was dreading, “Yes, she is sitting right here,” and the phone was suddenly in my hands.
At the other end of the line was a radiologist. Without wasting words, she explained that a suspicious spot had been found on my left breast which needed to be biopsied. She stressed the importance of scheduling one immediately and asked if I had any questions. Of course I couldn’t think of a single question in my present state of shock.
Within minutes of hanging up, my mind was flooded with things I wished I had asked. Where do I go for a biopsy? What kind of suspicious spot? How big? How suspicious?
Thus began one long journey, perpetuated by one short word; cancer. I did finally figure out where to begin, the biopsy was performed, and the diagnosis of cancer was given, all with a great deal of emotion and disbelief. Within days, I found myself in the exam room of a recommended surgeon.
My doctor was remarkable in his explanation of the proposed procedure to remove the cancer. Using diagrams and words I could understand, he showed why a mastectomy would be needed, suggesting that I remove both breasts. When this type of cancer was found in one breast, it was highly likely to appear in the other. An MRI was scheduled on the right breast to determine if this was already the case.
Two weeks prior to the MRI on my right breast, the mammogram showed nothing remarkable. However, with more detailed imaging, precancerous cells were already busy invading my right breast. The decision to have a bilateral mastectomy was validated. My trust in mammograms was immediately shredded into pieces. It was only then I learned that my breasts were dense, making it difficult to see cancer in progress.
Eleven months after a clean mammogram report, I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer which had already spread to my lymph nodes. Following a bilateral mastectomy and removal of all the lymph nodes under my left arm, I received eight months of chemotherapy every three weeks and endured all that comes with that package.
Lack of knowledge of having dense breasts, along with the trust I placed in routine imaging has changed my life forever. How many others will find themselves in this position? It is alarming that 43% of women have dense breasts but most don’t know it. As women, we must take responsibility for our own health as well as spread the word to inform others of the likelihood that a routine mammogram may not provide enough information for women with dense breasts. When it comes to cancer, early diagnosis can make all the difference.
I am not bitter about my cancer journey. The discoveries made, the people
I have met, and the opportunity to share what I have learned have made this trip
worthwhile. As the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To survive is
to find some meaning in the suffering.” And with the meaning I have found, I am
moving forward with the desire to bring hope and knowledge to others who also
tread the cancer path.
Claudia Bretzing is a stage 3 breast cancer survivor, author, teacher, wife, mother, and grandmother.
Your can read more about Claudia on her website
My Passionate Pen
Click here to purchase her book The Cancer Effect