There’s no two ways about it— I’m considered high-risk for developing breast cancer in my lifetime. In fact, based on my known risk factors and family history I have a lifetime risk of 37%. While this number may not seem high on its own, anything over 20% is considered high risk.
Fortunately or unfortunately, however you look at it, I’m very aware of breast cancer and my risks. The disease is prevalent on both sides of my family in varying forms and degrees, and the reality is I’m 33 years old and I need to start paying attention.
I’ve always believed in the importance of being proactive in my healthcare. But that doesn’t make it easy to think about “what could be.” I could choose to stick my fingers in my ears, close my eyes tightly like a toddler and shake my head singing “lalala” to drown out reality. But that’s not the responsible thing to do as partner to my husband, a mother to my daughters or even to myself. Burying my head in the sand doesn’t lower my risk. So when my family doctor recommended that I see a breast specialist, I agreed.
After meeting with a genetic counselor and my breast specialist, we’ve now determined a regular cadence for my screenings. First up was a mammogram. I know this is hindsight, but I cannot stress enough that it’s really NO BIG DEAL. I’ve heard countless stories about women avoiding this test. Maybe it’s due to embarrassment, fear of pain or fear of finding something scary. Whatever the reason, and this may sound harsh, but, get over it.
I was nervous, too. For all the reasons I listed above. Maybe I lucked out because I have access to great care and a newer facility, but my experience was almost pleasant. If you’ve never had a mammogram and have any hesitations about going, here was my experience:
Even before I arrived, scheduling the appointment was a breeze. I called and was able to get in 24 hours later. Once in the facility I was welcomed, immediately brought back to registration and then taken to a waiting room with private lockers. A nurse showed me where to store my belongings, told me to undress from the waist up and gave my a robe to change into while I waited. (One note: wearing a white robe with nothing underneath in a freezing cold room may make an already self conscious woman even more so. I would have preferred a darker color or thicker fabric, but I also tried to keep in mind this wasn’t a spa visit.)
When the radiologist called me and walked me to the x-ray room, she did a great job explaining how the procedure would go and what to expect. It was a little odd to disrobe, but after giving birth to two children my modesty in hospital settings is pretty much null.
The actual imaging was very quick. I was positioned two different ways for each breast, and only had to take one arm out of a sleeve at a time, preserving some dignity. It wasn’t the most comfortable process, physically or mentally, but it was efficient. The radiologist was friendly and apologetic as she clamped (yes, clamped) each breast onto the machine and directed me when to breathe or when to hold my breath. I was able to put my robe back on immediately after we finished.
The best part, which was unexpected as a first-timer, is the doctor read the results and talked to me while I was still there. I was under the impression that I’d be waiting 24 hours for results like many other tests, and that maybe “no news is good news.” That game is always a little anxiety inducing, so I appreciated the immediate feedback.
The doctor came in and talked me through what he saw (dense tissue, which at my age is to be expected) and what he didn’t see (anything alarming requiring further imaging). He mentioned the MRI would give a better picture, but that everything looked good.
I realized I’d been more nervous than I thought. I’d heard over and over, “getting a mammogram is no picnic,” but it really wasn’t that bad. So my breasts had the living daylights squeezed out of them for a few minutes. Ultimately the experience provided me with peace of mind and allowed me to feel more in control of my health.
My message here is twofold: One, find a healthcare provider you trust and make a prevention/screening plan together that you both are comfortable with. Two, follow through with that plan.
You owe it to your family and to yourself to be the healthiest you can. God forbid any issues arise, the earlier they are caught the better. Take the time to take care of yourself.