For many years, I nervously joked about mammograms. “A mammogram! When you choose to send the very breast.” Ha, ha. Maybe if I joked about it, I’d never get it. But as I witnessed my friends diagnosed with cancer and fighting mightily for their lives, it didn’t seem so funny.
This year, I wondered if it was my turn. A couple of weeks ago, I was at Munson’s Smith Family Breast Health Center, dressed in a pink hospital gown, sitting on a hospital bed and craning my neck to look at thin layers of black and white waves undulating on an ultrasound screen. I had no idea what I was viewing.
I got a first phone call from Munson when I was on my way to report on a badly behaving mute swan. It was sweltering outside and I couldn’t find the Silver Lake address; I had pulled over to call for directions and was anxious and hot when the scheduling clerk delivered the news they had “seen something” and wanted to do a follow-up mammogram and ultrasound.
I said I didn’t have time for a daytime appointment because I had to work. That really wasn’t the problem. The heat — and my long-held denial that it couldn’t happen to me — simply melted my good sense.
Well, the clerk put me on with the nurse, who was a little disturbed about my priorities. The car fan was noisy, and I thought she said the word, “squamous,” “saw something the size of half a pea,” “you really should get in.”
Overwhelmed by the day, I hung up without making an appointment.
After I got back to my desk, I Googled “squamous” and read that the primary squamous cell of the breast is a “very rare and aggressive malignancy.” I thought of my left breast, which had been itchy for the past six months. Hmm, “itchy breast” could be a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer. I began to panic.
I bumped into a friend on my way home, and told her the news. Over dinner that night, I confessed my fears to some more friends. My nine-year-old overheard me in the other room, and I instantly became a lot less dramatic. Did a little backpedaling. Realized then I should stop freaking other people out, including my family. Including myself.
The next morning, I bumped into a doctor friend on my way home from a run. I told her the news and she seemed nonplussed. “Lately, it seems like Munson is calling back half the women they see. I don’t fault them for being careful, but don’t worry until you need to. But do get checked.”
So I sheepishly called to make an appointment and to talk again to the nurse. She said they’d seen a “focal asymmetry” with no mention of “squamous.” So my first piece of advice: when you get a callback, WRITE DOWN what the nurse says.
I later learned that 13 percent or so of mammograms need a second look and a much lower fraction ever have a positive result. But I considered this a real wake-up call. I’d turned into an all-work, no play sort of gal. Somehow I’d forgotten to live by a gem of advice I heard decades ago: “Life isn’t a dress rehearsal.” It was time to start living that way!
A few days later, I arrived at the cancer center and saw Deb, who lived around the corner, and a couple of other women. Did we talk about why we were there? No.
I went through another set of breast squeezes and then an ultrasound. The doctor was called in for a verdict and she said she’d found nothing, not even a cyst. As far as my itchy breasts, she didn’t have a clue. And then she said I could go home. I wanted her to talk some more. But it was kind of like the end of the Ferris Bueller movie.
Pause, end of scary appointment. “You can go now. Bye.”
I lay there alone, paralyzed by relief. Tears ran down my cheeks. Finally, I found my way back to the changing room, put my clothes on and texted my husband three lovely words. “I am fine.”