May is Women’s Health Month.
As the sun set on my 20s and I turned 30, I realized I needed to redefine what self-care means to me. It’s not just about treating myself to a good meal, practicing the art of saying no, and taking a long bubble bath when I’m stressed; self-care is about taking care of my body, even when it triggers serious fears that I’d been avoiding.
I have a family history of breast cancer — my mom and both my maternal and paternal grandmothers have all battled the disease. I felt like it was only a matter of time until it was my turn to receive the diagnosis. Three years ago, I’d even been referred for a breast ultrasound at my routine physical after my doctor felt lumps in my breast. So when I went to the doctor for my physical this year, I knew I’d probably walk out with another breast ultrasound referral. A breast ultrasound, or sonogram, uses sound waves to make images of the breast so physicians can check for any abnormalities in breast cells and tissues.
Since undergoing my first ultrasound three years ago, I had neglected to follow up with the recommended yearly screenings; I was afraid to get the results.
But failing to get these annual screenings was the opposite of self-care. It was detrimental behavior, and entering my 30s helped me realize that if I want to live a long, healthy life, I need to change my habit of avoidance.
When I finally came to terms with the fact that I needed an ultrasound — I’d had one before and I could do it again — that sense of control actually helped calm my nerves on my way to the appointment.
But when my doctor found lumps in my breast again, I was told I’d need to get a diagnostic mammogram in addition to the ultrasound. Once I heard the word “mammogram,” my breath immediately left my body and my stomach dropped. As the doctor tried to explain to me why this was necessary, I began drowning in my fear. I didn’t hear a word and left the office in tears. My mind spiraled while I walked to my car in the parking lot. I couldn’t help but envision the worst-case scenario.
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. There are two types, screening and diagnostic. Screening mammograms are given routinely to detect breast cancer in women who have no apparent symptoms. Diagnostic mammograms are used when there are suspicious results on a screening mammogram or when other signs of breast cancer are present (discomfort, inverted nipple, lumps, or nipple discharge).
I scheduled my mammogram appointment, and considering my family history, my body felt like a ticking time bomb.
I searched the internet for concrete statistics about hereditary breast cancer, hoping that the numbers would prove my negative assumptions wrong. Sifting through endless information was intimidating and difficult at first, but I soon found resources. I read that 85% of breast cancer patients have no family history of the disease, and fewer than 5% of breast cancers occur in women under the age of 40. I also learned that, because I have an immediate family member who battled breast cancer, my risk nearly doubles — making me “high risk” for the disease. All of these numbers only made me feel more unsure about my odds.
I tried to combat my fears by finding a sense of peace and gratitude. I reminded myself that what is, already is. I may be perfectly healthy at this moment or something potentially harmful may be brewing in my tissue. Either way, it was happening with or without my permission and I needed to get it checked out. I reasoned with myself that I was very lucky to have access to any necessary health care screenings and treatments.
A few weeks later, I checked in at the hospital’s breast center for my screenings, where the receptionist was shocked to learn that I had been scheduled for a mammogram. She told me to take a seat while she checked with the doctor. I quietly sat amongst the other women, quickly realizing that I was the youngest person in the room by at least 15 years.
My name was finally called after 45 minutes. The technician told me I was going to have an ultrasound first so they could decide if a mammogram was necessary. She explained that at my current age (30), my breast tissue would most likely be too dense for a mammogram to reveal a clear picture of whatever is going on. She said that they would do the ultrasound, examine the results, and decide next steps on the spot.
This meant that, right away, I was going to find out if the lumps were benign cysts or potentially cancerous tumors.
My heart lurched forward. I laid down on the exam table and braced myself. I was scared, but at least I’d receive my results immediately. That felt much better than waiting days or weeks for serious health news. My debilitating anxiety would end in just a few minutes.
She asked me to remove my hospital gown one shoulder at time, and then smoothed warm lubricant over one of my breasts. “Wow, last time this wasn’t warmed up!” I joked about the lube. “Yes, we have finally made it into the 21st century!” She laughed and I closed my eyes.
The technician asked me to place my opposing arm behind my head as she slowly and gently moved the metal tool around on my skin. Closing my eyes and focusing on my conversation with the technician helped slow down my rapidly vacillating thoughts. The ultrasound took about three minutes for each breast and I never felt any physical discomfort. When it was over, she gave me a rag to wipe off the lube from my chest and quietly sat down at a computer to write up her report. After five excruciating minutes, she asked me if I was okay before disappearing briefly to get the doctor.
The doctor walked into the examination room moments later. Before she even sat down, she told me that the lumps were benign cysts — not tumors; the mammogram wouldn’t be necessary. I put my head in my hands as an opened-mouth smile spread across my face.
The doctor recommended that I undergo yearly ultrasound screenings and explained what it meant to have a “high risk” for breast cancer. She suggested that my next step in preventative care be the BRCA gene mutation test so I could see if I am predisposed to getting the disease. I left the office in tears again, but this time, they were tears of relief and happiness. I am confident knowing that, today, I’m okay, and I’ve learned what my next steps need to be.
Now, I will soak any remaining stress away in a bubble bath and look into taking the BRCA test.