Warning: the subject matter of this piece will be hard for some people.
The reminder letter came at least a year ago. “It’s time for you to make an appointment to get a mammogram,” it said.
Am I the only woman who does not say, “Yippee!” when told to get a mammogram? I think not.
The letter went into a pile of things I meant to get to eventually.
A few weeks ago, it surfaced, and I decided I might as well get it over with. I called the imaging center and made an appointment.
A mammogram is an x-ray of the inside of the breast with the intent of detecting cancer. We women are encouraged to get mammograms regularly after age forty.
Mammograms have come a long way. Around the year 2000 mammograms went digital and became more accurate, but now there is something called digital breast tomosynthesis, or 3D imaging. This means that mammograms are more accurate than ever.
My appointment day came, I went into town to the clinic, and began my mammogram journey. First, they took a set of 2D pictures, and then I was walked down the hall for some 3D pictures. Then I was walked down another hall, where a chipper radiologist who was about half my age and size introduced herself and proceeded to do an ultrasound of my right breast, then – whoo! that goo is cold! – went up into my right armpit, where, she said, my lymph nodes were all clear, and that was good.
By then I knew where this was going.
She showed me one of my mammogram x-rays and pointed out the jagged edges on this one small object.
“Jagged edges are typical of cancer,” she said.
I thought at the time that she was remarkably perky as she gave me this news. I prefer to believe that she was happy to have caught the little tumor red-handed.
A mammogram does not a diagnosis make, so the next step was to have a needle biopsy. I won’t describe that, except to say it made me think of the Spanish Inquisition.
The results, as expected, were that the little (7 mm, or approximately 3/8 of an inch) tumor is, indeed, cancer.
The word, cancer, carries such a powerful punch of fear and dread. It punched me. I was dumb with shock. Still, even though that visceral reaction prevails, I know rationally that a cancer diagnosis is not as likely to be a death sentence as it once was. My husband, Rick, had cancer twice (prostate and bladder), and was cured twice. Cancer is not what killed him.
I have gradually been getting used to the diagnosis the past few weeks. What I am having a hard time with right now is the dark silence, or the haunted stare, when I tell someone, because, you know, the word, cancer, carries such a powerful punch.
Don’t cry for me, Vashon Island. My surgeon tells me emphatically that this is curable. I will have a lumpectomy, radiation, and a few years of a cancer discouraging drug. This is standard treatment protocol when breast cancer is caught early and small, and a treatment that has brought through many, many survivors. I’m hearing from a lot of those survivors now, who are giving me empathy and tips on the process.
Because I have told some people and the cat is out of the bag, I thought I’d write about the experience as a form of rumor control, and so that I, and you, all of us, know we’re not alone.
Boy, are we not alone. I have learned that there are a lot of people in this community being treated for various forms of cancer, and I did not know that until I said I had cancer, and that brought out the stories. My cancer looks no big deal compared to what some people are experiencing. I am a cancer rookie. I have not started treatment and I feel fine. Once I have surgery, I will not feel fine, and I always remember that life has no guarantees.
Here comes the sermon: I am glad I did not decide to put off my mammogram for another year. Yes, mammograms can be painful, and having a mammogram is one of the most vulnerable moments in a woman’s (and sometimes a man’s) life. I’m always thinking, please, Jesus, don’t let there be an earthquake while I’m clamped into this machine.
Now you will be thinking that, too. Sorry.
Stop putting off your mammogram, and go find out you are healthy, or get saved by early detection.
And seize the day, starting now.
Funny how a cancer diagnosis sharpens your focus on what is important.