Anything But Routine

routine-mammogram

One woman’s regularly scheduled mammogram kicks off a journey into the unknown

By Annette Brooks

It took a while to actually say it out loud. Instead, I had a “malignancy” or “a cluster of abnormal cells.” Finally, when I could simply state that I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, it was, surprisingly, a relief. Maybe more of an acceptance.

Abnormalities were discovered during my routine 3D screening mammogram, before symptoms appeared and before a lump could be felt. Initially and throughout the ordeal I tried to focus on the positives. I found comfort in the fact that I hadn’t put off getting the routine screening mammogram, but truth be told, I had postponed them in the past for reasons that seemed insignificant now. It had been easy to come up with them then—too busy with work, helping family members—basically taking care of everyone else but myself, which is something most women are familiar with.

And although you hear that a woman’s chances of having invasive breast cancer in her lifetime are one in eight, and about the importance of catching breast cancer early while it’s most treatable, you think, “hey, this happens to other women, not me.” Or you just shelve it away somewhere in a nice little mental compartment and tell yourself you’ll get to it when you can.

Yet all the positivity I was trying to project was overshadowed by my fear of the unknown. While waiting for the biopsy results, I would awaken throughout the night, my mind racing through all sorts of scenarios. When the call finally came, I learned I had a small, non-aggressive cancer (hooray for lazy cancer!) in one breast and a lump that was most likely benign in the other. This gave me lots of much-needed hope, but I wouldn’t know if the cancer had spread to any lymph nodes until after surgery.

The next step was to find a breast surgeon, but really, how do you choose? It’s such a significant decision to make during a time when your emotions are scattered all over the place. I had to collect myself and focus. Ultimately, I selected a breast surgeon with great credentials who had been diagnosed with breast cancer herself at an early age. Her level of commitment to helping her patients fight the good fight was as extraordinary as I suspected. After the consultation, I felt completely comfortable with my decision and walked out of her office feeling more at ease and in greater control of my destiny.

Yet all the positivity I was trying to project was overshadowed by my fear of the unknown

 

Some of the first words I uttered during my consultation with my breast surgeon were, to put it bluntly, “Cut them off! They need to go.” I was sure she heard it all the time. She carefully explained that with early stage breast cancer the overall survival rate as well as the risk of the cancer spreading to other organs and tissues was essentially the same when comparing a mastectomy to lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy. Armed with this knowledge and trusting her expertise, I opted for two lumpectomies. I also underwent a newer pre-op procedure that would lead my surgeon directly to both masses via sound waves, removing the guesswork about what tissue was to be removed. It felt good knowing what my path forward would be.

During the days before surgery I flew to Austin to see my 26-year-old daughter and tell her what I was facing, donated clothes I hadn’t worn in a while, and threw out two drawers filled with old skin care products and cosmetics. It’s funny where your mind goes when you feel your life may be cut short.

The morning of my scheduled three-hour outpatient surgery, I checked into the hospital early to undergo another procedure related to tissue-sparing lumpectomies. It involved blue dye injected near the cancer, which travels to the sentinel lymph nodes—the first few lymph nodes into which the tumor drained. This, along with the earlier pre-op procedure, plays a vital role in tissue-sparing breast surgery.

A few days following surgery my husband and I headed to a condo in the White Mountains where I could relax and heal, with an okay from my surgeon. Then came the post-op pathology results. My stomach churned as I took the call that would give me the results during lunch at a local café. Was the benign mass actually cancerous? Had the cancer in the other breast spread beyond into the tissue margins around the lump, meaning more surgery? Had the cancer spread to the lymph nodes? Fortunately, the answers to all these questions were no. A couple of weeks later the results from a genomic test arrived. Good fortune was once again on my side. A low score indicated the benefits of chemotherapy wouldn’t outweigh the risks. Only radiation therapy would be necessary. I could finally relax.

Today, I remain extraordinarily grateful that God has granted me a new lease on life. My journey through recovery as a survivor isn’t over, but at least I have that luxury. Although you hear this so often it has almost become cliché, early detection and treatment saves lives. It surely saved mine. And believe me, it’s not so cliché when it’s your life hanging in the balance. So please, if you are due or past due for a screening mammogram, make an appointment today. It took me around an hour, including drive time, to get a noninvasive, life-saving imaging test. Isn’t the rest of your life worth that?  

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