When You Have An Abnormal Mammogram: Grand New Adventures In Fear
It wasn’t exactly a surprise when they said I had an abnormal mammogram. I am, as they say, no spring chicken, and generally, the older women get, the higher their risk for breast cancer.
But I admit there was still a part of me shouting, “I’m too YOUNG! I’m barely out of college! This is crazy!” …Even though college is far behind me, and, as my aunt (a nurse) always reminds me sweetly, my arteries always know how old I really am.
Aging is the buzzard that sits on your bedpost…with a mean grin. I’ll get you eventually. No hurry.
But ready or not, I got the call last month that women dread. There was something unusual about my annual screening mammogram, and the hospital needed me to come back for additional scans. Oh, wow. This can’t be good.
I was scheduled for a diagnostic mammogram—the heavy-duty kind with mix-and-match compression plates, multiple scans from different angles, and a radiologist who reads the results immediately.
If there was a lump, I was headed for a nice, long needle in the biopsy room.
“Disgruntled” is one word to describe my feelings. So are “vexed,” “alarmed,” and “appalled.” Especially knowing they’d be compressing, and re-compressing, certain parts of my anatomy with all the dignity of a marshmallow in a s’more.
Still, I figured I could make the best of it. So, I’m sharing my thoughts for any health specialist who might want to peek into the mind of a VNP (Very Nervous Patient)—someone who’s caught a possible sighting of the Grim Reaper in her crystal ball.
Scariest Show Under The Big Top
What is it like? Your mind is a circus of thoughts, questions, and doubts. Funhouse mirrors show you a distorted future, and sinister clowns juggle plates that say, “Haha, now you’re in for it.” The acrobat on the highwire is you. There is no safety net below.
In good moments, you hold on to logic: The odds are in my favor. About 80% of all lumps are benign, BreastCancer.org says. In bad moments, you brood and think the worst. It’s Stage 4 for sure. I should set up that trust fund for my cats.
The waiting is the worst part, of course. When I finally walked in for my diagnostic mammogram at Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago, I was relieved. And ready for answers.
At least I thought I was—until I started the trek back to the great Boob-o-Matic and my mind flooded with new questions.
This Time, They Mean Business
The diagnostic mammograms are held on the seventh floor at Rush, unlike the annual screening ones, which are held on the ground floor. Both offices are beautifully decorated and full of friendly, professional staff.
But at this appointment, I didn’t have to wait for my test. A receptionist checked me in immediately, and before I even sat down, a staff member led me to the changing area. Oh, that’s nice. They’re not wasting any time. Wait, is that good or bad?
After donning a maroon gown, I was led down a hallway past a series of interview rooms—cozy, rose-colored offices full of cushy chairs, subdued lighting, and Kleenexes.
They were gorgeous, impeccable. Part of me was impressed. And part of me was cringing. How many women have received bad news in those rooms? Will I be one of them soon?
I decided I’d rather take the doctor down to the Au Bon Pain cafe. Flapping gown and all.
Blissed Out … Not
In the waiting room, I watched a large-screen TV that showed a series of landscapes—waterfalls, mountains, flowers swaying gently in the wind. Violins and flutes serenaded us. It was elegantly produced. And I was instantly suspicious.
They’re trying to relax us, I thought. Why? This is creepy. Like a hospice for dying boobs. Geez, I can’t think straight.
I was having nonsensical thoughts about breast insurance when they called me back for the mammogram. I don’t remember the technician’s name, but I do remember that she shook my hand and smiled. It did have a calming effect.
As she set up the scanning machine—a sophisticated, oblong device that never fails to remind me of the space monster in Alien—I stood awkwardly. I babbled about my cats and how their veterinarians, amazingly, get them to sit still for X-rays.
The technician agreed that was amazing, and I said vets were amazing people. Who did amazing things. Really amazing. And pretty soon, we were off and running with my scans.
And Squish, 2, 3, 4 …
At the sixth compression, I was visualizing the machine as a cute baby shark that had swum by and clamped onto me affectionately. I wuv you. It helped a little.
“How are you doing? Are you okay?” the technician asked as she tightened the plates once again.
“Yep. I’m good,” I said, not looking down. Nice sharkie. Don’t bite any harder, now.
“You’re a tough one,” she said, and I grinned. Or maybe grimaced.
After the final round of hold-your-breath-and-don’t-move, I covered myself and sat down. The technician said she’d return in a few minutes. I was quiet, wondering what they’d find. It really could have been anything. Small lump? Big lump? Lots of lumps? Frankentumor?
There was another large-screen TV on the wall, and this time, there were animals in the landscapes. A butterfly, an elk, a gnu chewing on something. The New Age-y music wafted out. Animals die in nature, I thought. Circle of life. Happens all the time, nothing to fear. God, what am I thinking?
Finally, the technician reappeared. “We don’t need to do any more compressions,” she said. I hoped that meant good news. She led me back to the quiet, dark den where the radiologist did her diagnostics.
The Final Frontier
The doctor introduced herself and kindly invited me to sit down next to her at her desk. Peering through her eyeglasses, she brought up different views of my left breast on three large computer screens. They looked like giant, glowing moonscapes.
“You see these tiny calcifications here?” she said. “There are three together, very faint.”
They looked like small, white ice chips, and they were maybe a just a smidge larger than, say, a dot that a ballpoint pen could make. Ridiculously tiny.
As we zoomed in to see them more closely, breast tissue flew past us like clouds and space dust, reminding me of the Astrometrics lab on Star Trek. I was boggled by the magnifying power of this software.
“When a patient has ductal carcinoma in situ, it often starts out this way, as a cluster of calcifications,” the radiologist said. She explained that ductal carcinoma in situ is a form of cancer that’s usually very treatable.
“However, these calcifications are very small,” she continued. “If we were to try to get a tissue sample, we might not even be able to find them. And we cannot say for certain that they will evolve into ductal carcinoma in situ.
“So, we’re going to bring you back every 6 months, for 2 years, and keep scanning you, and watch them carefully.”
I had a million questions, and this crackerjack radiologist answered them all. In summary, she said if the calcifications started to multiply, it would be time to take a tissue sample. But for now, there was no reason to be alarmed. And she smiled.
I didn’t have cancer. Yet. Maybe I never would.
I wanted to hug her.
That’s All, For Now—Really
I walked back to the waiting room with a definite lighter-than-air feeling. I sat and waited for them to print my report.
Next to me, a woman named Tamika was watching the TV screen, with its floaty landscapes.
“This music creeps me out,” she said.
“I know what you mean,” I said, with a wry smile.
We talked, and she told me her mother was there for a biopsy. I told her I’d say a prayer for her mom, and she thanked me. I wished I could do more.
I suddenly felt a pang of sympathy for the health professionals who work with patients with dicey test results and uncertain futures. They did their best to make us comfortable. It couldn’t be an easy job.
I definitely have a new respect for mammograms. Meanwhile, I’ve named my calcifications Crabbe, Goyle, and Malfoy—after the bratty kids in the Harry Potter novels.
In 6 months, we’ll see if they’ve magically multiplied. Hopefully not.
The only thing I might change about my experience is switching those waiting-room TV videos to something maybe a little, er, lighter.
At my vet’s office, they show HGTV with continuous “flip-this-house/flip-this-condo” type content. It’s weirdly interesting. Something like this might work, on low volume—just a quiet distraction, if you want it.
The message would be less “We’re trying to comfort you,” and more “We assume you’re going to live. You should, too. So, you might as well think about ways to upgrade your bathroom.”
Life goes on, after all. Might as well embrace it, at any age.
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