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Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Needles & Nurses & Cells, Oh My

breast cancer awareness




I recall my first mammogram. Not fondly. The amount of pain shocked me. So did the doctor.


This was pre-Women’s Imaging Center, when I was living in Chicago. Pre-sister’s cancer diagnosis, too. My doctor was a solo practitioner radiologist so everybody stepped into her office to get their results.



After a poker-faced review of my images right in front of me, the doctor slapped both hands on her desk and demanded, “So, what do you want to know?



“You want to know if you have cancer.
   Well, you don’t.”


Hold on, Nellie. I DID NOT WANT TO KNOW IF I HAD CANCER. “Do I have cancer?” was not on my list of questions at all. I didn’t have a list of questions. The sole purpose for my masochistic visit was that I recently turned 40.



You know—40. The dreadful age at which, among other dreadful things that make aging dreadful, doctors recommend women have their first mammogram. We are supposed to put our boobs out there just to establish a baseline.



My doctor went on to explain that I did have calcifications, which, she assured me, are common and not cancerous. Though it is weird for teeny tiny stones in your breasts to be normal, they are not dangerous, she said, and that’s why we get baseline mammograms.



Seems like she could have led with that part.



Until she answered the question I did not ask, having cancer never once entered my mind, and I was blissfully unaware of my breasts. Ditto for Summer 2015.



At the Imaging Center, you notice this strange side effect of stepping into an office: hysterical deafness. The doctor’s mouth is in motion yet you can only make out every 15th or 50th phrase.



Indeterminate. Calcifications. Needle. Biopsy.



That’s all I could make out over the sound of the voice in my head hollering, “fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.






The ordeal was erupting.



A perfectly lovely doctor, one of many whose name I don’t remember and who I only met once, was telling me that she saw something indeterminate, 14 millimeters of suspicious origin. The recommended course of treatment is a stereotactic core biopsy.



Translation: you get stabbed with a huge freaking needle and the indeterminate whatever is sucked out for testing.



Two weeks later, off I went. I was scared; who wouldn’t be? Not scared enough to ask a friend or relative go with me. They offered but since the procedure was in a building in downtown Philadelphia, parking and traffic outweighed the amount of moral support I thought I needed.



Which was nil. Because I did not think I had cancer.



I did have a bad attitude. No matter how you look at it, a breast invasion sucks. And did I mention it hurts? Of course, I am going to take every measure that doctors advise. I don’t have to be happy about it.



I don’t have to be a bitch about it either, I realized as I waited for the onslaught. I try to watch the dirty looks and bite back the snarky words. I try to be cheerful. Some days, I just try to be silent.



Before you think I am delusional and ridiculous – who gets annoyed over receiving the best medical care in modern oncology???- consider this: studies show that about 60% of needle biopsies do not find malignancies.



My odds were good. The operating table was not.



The table is metal. No padding at all, unless you consider a couple of sheets cozy. It’s bent at a 45 degree angle. You have to lay arched-over backwards, with your face pressed against the cold steel, head completely turned to one side.



The table also has a handy hole for the appropriate breast to pop through. It’s on a hydraulic lift because all the poking and stabbing is performed from below. I couldn’t see a thing, which was good. Listening to it was plenty traumatic.



First, the nurse raised the table up ten feet and injected numbing medication into my defenseless left boob, just hanging around, minding its own business. Soft tissue injections hurt. There is no numbing medication for numbing medication. SMH



Next, the doctor, whose name I don’t remember and who I met once (when I was semi-prone, mid-air, with my face turned away), came in and got right up at it. She gave me the play by play, describing in detail how she was thrusting a hypodermic plunger into my flesh.



The doctor sucked out the suspect cells and left a titanium tag in their place. Just in case somebody goes looking. You know, if I have cancer.



Which I knew I didn’t.



Just as I thought it was over, the nurse grabbed me by the boob and squeezed hard. Numbing medication works on piercing and stabbing. Clutching and crushing, not so much.



As she continued to apply extreme pressure, she explained that she was trying to get any fluids that collected inside to prevent a hematoma from forming. Manual draining was a recommended precaution, she said, besides, there was not a lot of blood.



I wondered what a lot is, as I saw mine all over the floor. Tip: Nobody cleans the procedure room until after the procedure.



Still, seems like she could’ve put a bucket under the table.



The doctor spoke with me before I left (not in an office). She told me what to expect, such as how much my boob will hurt and swell, as well as when the results would be in – Tuesday or Wednesday. She would call me then.



I went to a family wedding that weekend. I was uncomfortable, and got even more so as I was forced to explain my physical well-being, or lack thereof, to several relatives. To be honest, if I didn’t need help with my dog, I would not have told anyone anything.



As I saw it, this needle thing was upsetting and something merely to be endured. I did not want people to struggle to find the proper platitude or tell me everything was going to be fine. I already knew it was.



The problem was that no one else “knew” it. They wanted updates. By Tuesday I had two:

1) I discovered I am allergic to surgical strips via a blistering rash on my poor left boob.

2) The doctor discovered I had lobular carcinoma in situ.



Which is not cancer.



Seems like a negative biopsy ought to be the end of all this breast cancer awareness.



To be continued….


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Next time: Breast Cancer Awareness: Doctor Recommended or Doctored Up?


Sweet Readers,

Thank you so much for all your good thoughts and kind words. Not having cancer is not a picnic. If you know anyone whose adventure in breast cancer awareness resulted in negative biopsies, please share this post and last week’s with her. Knowing she doesn’t have to brave, and that she is allowed to have a bad attitude, might help. Knowing more than her doctor, well, stay tuned.

In sickness and in health,


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Be a sweetie and share this post with someone.




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