You need to have a biopsy of your left breast done immediately.
Those were the scariest dozen words I had ever heard come out from a doctor’s mouth. It was November 2012 and I was 40 years old and had just had my first mammogram done a week earlier and was meeting my doctor to go over the results. I have known my gyn doctor for six years since she had been my ob when I was pregnant with my first child. She is brilliant at what she does and we’d had an easy relationship up until this point. My first reaction when I heard what she said was “there’s got to be some mistake.”
My doctor looked dispassionately at me and said the films showed some cell activity in my left breast and I needed to have a biopsy done to rule out cancer. I admit I went a little hysterical and jumped at her screaming there was no family history of breast cancer, I don’t even have a lump, I was in good shape, I don’t smoke, drink or take any kind of hormonal birth control. I pleaded with her saying you KNOW me. You know what good care I took of myself when I was pregnant. You saw how vigilant I was about the food I ate and how much exercise I logged in daily. I CAN’T have cancer!
My doctor gave me my first lesson of dealing with hard knocks and told me that if I wanted to continue taking good care of myself, I had to have the biopsy done. She dismissed me and told me to pick up the referral from the front desk and said they would help me make my appointment at the hospital to have the procedure done.
I left the office in a fog with the referral but I didn’t book the appointment yet. I wasn’t ready to accept this. I went to the radiology facility where I had done my mammogram and asked for the films, CD and report. I then went through my health insurance provider directory to look for a breast specialist. I called nine names until I could get an appointment to meet with someone for a second opinion. Feeling slightly calmer, I sat back and kept telling myself everything would be ok. I didn’t have cancer and this specialist would tell me what I wanted, no needed, to hear.
I would advise anyone who receives any health news to not be alone if you can help it once you get the news, especially if it’s bad. I happened to be home alone the day I received my news and I drove myself crazy. After getting my films and report and having made the appointment for a second opinion, I went online and typed in breast biopsy and one of the first things that popped up in the search engine was a video of the procedure in full detail. I couldn’t get through the entire video and frantically shut it down after the first minute. Next I went on WebMD and typed in breast biopsy and once again was shown a slideshow to breast cancer. The video wasn’t even the worst part because the comments section was more frightening than any picture. Women were posting their experiences with biopsies, mastectomies, infections, scarring and pain. Just like you can’t look away from a train wreck, I kept clicking on those comments and reading those stories. While not every story was a horror, there was enough information in cyber world to make me believe that this was the beginning of the end. No good would come out of this.
When I told my husband that I needed to have a biopsy done, he was incredulous. You’re so healthy! What is the doctor talking about? He agreed that I should go get a second opinion and when I showed him the sites I had been on, he looked very grim and told me not to get ahead of myself. We don’t know what we’re dealing with so there’s no sense in jumping the gun, he said. My husband closed down the computer and told me to get some rest. The thing about receiving bad news is that rest is the last thing you need. Your mind and body can get enough mileage from that one morsel of bad news to fuel your worse nightmares for hours. I have always prided myself in not needing to take any painkillers. I rarely got headaches and I kept my body limber to prevent any strains and muscle aches. The next morning, I felt like my head weighed 5 tons and my shoulders and lower back were so knotted I literally couldn’t move and thought I was paralyzed for a second.
The sad thing is I wouldn’t get a good night’s rest for the next two months because my appointment with the specialist wasn’t until late January 2013. I had to get through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve – previously all my favorite holidays – before I could get some answers. I have never been particularly good at waiting. There is only so much I can distract myself until I come back to what I am obsessing over.
I finally started sharing my predicament with my parents and a few close friends. People reacted as expected and were supportive. I had been wavering about canceling my appointment and two of my friends told me that if I never found out what was wrong, it would keep turning up the next time I had a mammogram. I was under the impression that maybe my problem would resolve itself by the time I had my next mammogram.
When January finally came, I had the strangest sense of dread. The specialist I met was surprisingly empathetic. She spent over half an hour with me looking over the films and report and doing a physical exam on me. She allowed my husband to come in and ask questions and didn’t judge. She agreed with my gyn doctor that I should have a biopsy done. She also said that she didn’t believe I was at any stage with the cell activity happening in my left breast and the films just showed changes at this point. A biopsy would give a definitive answer to everyone’s questions. She then spent time explaining the procedure and didn’t minimalize anything. I can’t honestly say that I felt better having met with the specialist because I still had to get the biopsy done. While her approach was gentler, she was saying what any doctor would say. I felt defeated.
I had the procedure done a week later. Ironically there wasn’t a long wait and the hospital could’ve probably booked me the same day if I had wanted to go in that soon. I had a stereotactic biopsy, which is done in the radiology department. A mammogram was done to find the area to be biopsied. A radiologist gave me a numbing shot and I had to lie on my stomach on a table that had a hole cut out for my breast to hang through. The radiologist made a cut in my skin that had been numbed and a hollow needle was put in with the help of a special X-ray. Next, I heard 8 loud clacks and felt a jabbing motion inside my breast as the tissue samples were being cut and pulled through the needle. That was the most painful part of the procedure for me because it was a continuous sharp, jabbing sensation and no amount of numbing alleviated that feeling. I’m pretty sure I held my breath the whole time the tissue samples were extracted. There was another part of the procedure that I had decided not to do.
Typically, when you have a sterotactic biopsy done, a metal marker or titanium clip is put into your body where the samples were taken. The breast specialist had explained to me that this was done because the next time you had a mammogram, it would show the exact location of the spot where the tissue samples were taken. Also, if the results showed there was cancer, a doctor would know which area to look for immediately. When I had asked if I could waive this part of the procedure, the doctor asked me why did I not want the clips put in. I told her if I did end up with the worst-case scenario, I would have to have plenty of invasive procedures done on my body. If the results were benign, I didn’t want to have the clips in my body permanently as a reminder. I was fortunate that the doctor didn’t push me to do this part of the procedure and had sent a note to the hospital and radiology department to get a waiver form on declining putting in the clips. The hospital and physician assistant tried their best to change my mind but I stood firm and told them I was willing to accept any consequences and risks.
My results came back benign and my follow up mammogram six months later went fine without the metal markers. For my scenario, I was able to waive having the clips put in. I can’t speak for others but if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, make sure you can talk to your doctor about every part of the procedure and what needs to be done and what may not need to be done. There is room to negotiate and you don’t have to accept everything as absolute. I still got my results and clearance without the clips being put in. Many hospitals and their staff will try to push as much on you for liability issues. But depending on your case, you may not need to have everything done and can waive certain parts.
I still had a long recovery after my procedure. The needle site was inflamed and bruised for three days. I didn’t shower for two days and had to have a bandage covering the area during that time. I couldn’t lift or carry my daughter for the first week and that was hard for her to understand and made me frustrated. The day I took off the bandage, I cried when I saw the angry, red and purple hole at the upper corner of my left breast. I was afraid to touch it because it was still tender. I cleaned the area and left it uncovered. I couldn’t wear a bra and ended up going braless for about three months. I had phantom feelings of the jabbing motion and would hunch over sometimes for no reason. I flinched anytime my daughter or husband tried to hug me close and it took a very long time for me to get back to normality.
Something like this changes you. No matter how big or small, it is still a trauma that you have to reconcile yourself to. I had to explain a lot earlier than I had planned about breast health to my then 4-year-old daughter. She didn’t completely understand but understood the basic fact that mommy had to have a check up and test for her breast. When my daughter asked if she would have to get a check up and test done too, I told her not now but when the time came, I would be with her every step of the way because I had taken care of myself when I needed to. I came through unscathed this time because I took action. I was very blessed to have the love and support of those who care about me. Most importantly, I now know I have the kind of grit that will get me through future bumps along the way and at the end of the road, I will have lived the life I am meant to live.
Do you have a story about how breast cancer has impacted your life as a parent? We want to hear it! Join our October Breast Cancer Awareness conversation and share your story today.