At 46 years of age, I am keenly aware that I am on the edge of the last half of my life on this earth. I don’t take it for granted. Most people would say they are middle aged because it makes them feel a little less vulnerable and I get that. I take good care of myself because I have two children and a husband that need me around for a very long time. I eat well (okay, sweets are my vice), I exercise, maintain a healthy weight, limit caffeine and alcohol, I don’t smoke or do drugs and I always get my annual mammogram. I have had one every year since I was 39 years old. I know my risks. I have a familial history of breast cancer, my first pregnancy was after 30, my breasts are apparently very dense and lord knows what I put my body through from the endless injections, hormones and medications associated with two years of fertility treatments.
Last Friday I made the annual trek to the imaging center. I always have a good experience. The techs are professional, gentle and efficient. I am usually in and out in 20 minutes and then I am on my way, until next year. This year was a little different. Three days after my mammogram, I received a call.
The cell phone rang and I didn’t recognize the number so I let it go to voicemail. A few minutes later my phone buzzed with a voicemail so I listened. It was a woman, named Nell, from the imaging center asking me to return her call. My heart sank and I felt a little nauseous. I immediately returned her call and identified myself. She did not waste any time.
“Mrs. Brandenburger, we found something….on your mammogram results.”
I froze, my stomach flipped and my heart skipped a beat.
“Okay.” That was all I could say at the moment as my brain desperately tried to comprehend and process what she was saying.
Nell was very skilled. It was obvious to me that she delivers this kind of news on a regular basis. She was calm, matter of fact, and thorough. Every time I thought of a question, she would answer before I even got a chance to ask. Nell is really good at what she does and probably deserves a raise.
She went on to explain that because my breasts are particularly dense, sometimes shadows or masses may appear as the tissue folds over on itself. She also explained that women often have benign cysts that are completely harmless but, given my familial history and other risk factors, she was recommending a more thorough 3D mammogram and ultrasound. She made an appointment for me, three days later at the Sarah Cannon Cancer institute. The fact that the title of the facility includes the word “cancer” was extremely unnerving and made me want to throw up.
I immediately texted Mark. My husband, who knows me better than anyone, responded in the only way that would make me feel better. He texted a funny meme about how fabulous my breasts are and I laughed out loud.
For three days, I suppressed my feelings. I was determined to think positive thoughts, go on about my day and not put anything negative out into the universe. It was really freakin’ hard. In fact, it was impossible to not think about the what if.
As I pulled into the parking lot and saw the letters on the outside of the brand spanking new medical building of the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute, a chill ran up my spine and I felt nauseous again.
Taking a deep breath I soldiered on, walking into the building to the registration desk. I spent the next 20 minutes filling out paperwork and answering some of the same questions I had already answered at last weeks’ mammogram.
Do you have a family history of breast cancer?
Do you have a medical directive?
What is your insurance?
When was your last period?
Who is your primary care provider? And so on and so on.
She explained that the medical center requires a deposit of $100 because we had not met our deductible for the year. She told me that insurance would likely cover most of it and we would receive a bill for any outstanding payment. I swallowed hard as I remembered that Leah’s swim team registration is due next week, we just had the driveway sealed, Thomas needs new shoes for Parkour and I need to start looking at registering the kids for summer camps. I reluctantly handed her my credit card and she placed one of those hospital bands on my arm similar to what you receive when you are admitted for surgery.
In the lobby of the registration desk, a TV was tuned into one of those HGTV house hunting shows. Featured was an annoying couple in their late 20s. The husband had way too much gel in his thinning hair and the wife was dressed like she was a contestant on The Bachelor. They quickly realized they were in way over their heads but they had a first time home buying budget of $750,000! What the hell?
After registering, I was sent upstairs to another waiting area and greeted by a nice lady who put more paperwork in front of me with more questions, many of which were the same as the registration desk questions. I sighed, looked up and saw a little table in the corner with a Keurig and a shiny tray lined with Starbucks cookies. I wasn’t hungry but I needed something for my stomach to digest because I was nauseous again.
I handed my paperwork over to the greeter who then walked me back to a changing area, instructing me to undress from the waste up. She handed me a robe and one of those alcohol wipes to remove the deodorant from my underarms. Once I was undressed, robed and deodorantless (yes, I just made up that word), I waited.
After about five minutes, another woman greeted me politely, leading me to a locker room where she suggested I store my coat and purse. After securing my personal items she lead me to another waiting area to wait once more. I spotted a People magazine and on the cover was Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I flipped through the pages, glancing at pictures of celebrities on the beach, a red carpet event and movie stars eating lunch in restaurants. I scanned an article about a man whose two children have been missing for two years and he swears that his wife knows where they are. My stomach was churning and my hands began to shake from nervous energy. I tossed the magazine onto the table, pulled out my phone, and glanced through Facebook posts, an attempt to occupy my mind.
Eventually a pregnant radiology tech, named Sara, greeted me and led me to another room. As we walked, I asked her how far along she was. She told me this was her second pregnancy and she was due in June. I smiled at the distraction of her story as she manipulated my breast and body to conform to the position I needed to be in for my boobs to be squeezed into pancakes. She was very nice and I was grateful that she did most of the talking because I was trying hard to suppress the fear, willing myself to not feel vulnerable and cry.
As the glass shield clamped down, the muscles in my neck and chest strained against the firm tug. I held my breath, as instructed, and waited until the machine released me from it’s grasp. Sara explained that the radiologist would review the 3D image and I would know something in about 10 minutes. As she walked me back toward another waiting area, she indicated that typically the 3D image is efficient enough to ascertain a negative result, meaning that I would likely not need an ultrasound. She wished me luck and walked away, leaving me to sort through several more outdated and torn magazines. I glanced at my phone and took note of the time. Ten minutes, she said. That won’t be so bad.
Almost exactly 10 minutes later another tech peeked her head around the corner and introduced herself.
“Hi there, I am Nancy. I am going to be doing your ultrasound today.”
Wait, what? I thought to myself because I was too shocked to actually speak the words. Didn’t Pregnant Sara say the 3D image would be enough? Didn’t she say that I would not need an ultrasound? I felt the panic rise from my stomach, to my chest, my throat and my face. I was sweating like a horse and the fact that I had removed my deodorant with that freezing cold alcohol pad made me worry that I probably smelled as bad as my 12 year old son’s laundry.
Nancy led me to a dark room with an ultrasound machine next to a bed. She gently encouraged me to lie down on my back and put my right arm above my head. I did as she said, while fighting back the tears and anxiety that were beginning to take over. She was polite and professional, guiding me along with what she needed to do to perform the ultrasound. She squeezed an ample amount of gel onto my right breast and began to move the wand to capture the ultrasound image. Although the gel was warm, it was unsettling and somewhat irreverent. The tears that blurred my vision began to flow down the side of my face, across my temple and into my hair line as I silently cried, hoping that she would not notice. I resisted the urge to wipe at my face because then it would be obvious that I was crying. Nancy suddenly paused, reached over my head for something that I could not see and placed a box of tissues in front of my face, smiling gently with calm and kind eyes. And that is when the flood gates opened. Every ounce of suppressed trepidation came flowing out of me all at once and I sobbed, wiping at my eyes and blowing my nose, while Nancy softly encouraged me.
“Go ahead and cry. This is a safe place for tears and fears.” she said.
“I’m sorry. I have been holding it in for days.” I said between sobs.
“I know this might not be the best time to spout out statistics but in 80% of the cases, the results indicate nothing to worry about.” Nancy said as she began to move the wand once again up and down and around my breast. I thought to myself, but what if this is one of the 20% cases?
Eventually, she finished the ultrasound and informed me that the radiologist would deliver the results in just a few minutes. Then she quietly left the room, closing the door behind her, leaving me to process my fear all alone. I took several deep breaths and used one of the grounding exercises that I encourage my son to use when he is having an anxiety attack. I closed my eyes and tried to calm my mind and regulate my breathing. Eventually there was a knock at the door.
A woman, about my age walked in and introduced herself as the radiologist. She smiled and handed me a clean tissue to wipe the tears that were beginning to dry up. Working quickly and efficiently, she spread more of the warm gel onto my breast, guided the wand up, down and around a few times as I continued to take deep breaths to calm my nerves.
“Well Mrs Brandenburger, everything appears to be normal.” she said with a warm smile.
And the waterworks started again. She handed me another tissue as she explained that my dense breast tissue, made the conclusion more challenging. Apparently the original tech saw a shadow that was most likely dense tissue folder over on itself.
As the tension left my body, I thanked all of the staff for their diligence, dressed myself and walked swiftly to my car, texting my husband that I and my healthy breasts were headed home! On the drive home, the sun seemed a little bit brighter and the spring blossoms a little more colorful.
When I drove up to the house, Leah, who had been riding her bike, hopped off and ran over to give me a hug, nearly bringing me to my knees with gratitude. I kissed my husband who made a silly remark about his willingness to conduct daily breast exams on me because it’s best to be “proactive”. I walked into the kitchen and on the counter was a cute little stainless steel wine tumbler that I had recently mentioned I wanted. Mark had wrapped it with a note that said “Happy Healthy Boobies Day”. My breasts may be a little more deflated after breastfeeding two babies but they are still healthy and I am so grateful.
Beautiful women of the world, please don’t forget to do regular self exams and get your mammograms. We need more healthy boobies out there! From now on, April 5 will be officially known as Healthy Boobie Day in my house!