Hey, sister - I won't break your heart, but I'm going to give it a little rattle ...
It’s a bit of a cliché, isn’t it? - “I don’t want to alarm you, but … ”
People often start a sentence that way. And then they slam-dunk a little gem that makes your heart jolt.
I’ll not use that cliché here because … well, because I do want to alarm you. I want you to reach for your ‘phone. So, here’s the slam-dunking little gem …
TWO mammograms did not reveal the large, invasive carcinoma in my breast.
(Yes, that’s plural – mammograms).
I want my story to jolt you into action. Get an ultra-sound. Make an appointment.
No, they’re not free. Only mammograms are free in New Zealand once you reach a certain age. My friends and family who have had an ultrasound breast-check over the last year tell me it cost them somewhere between $200 and $300 or so, depending on whether they had a mammogram in the same visit – the two procedures were not separately itemised on their invoices (which I made them dig out of their files for me while I was writing this blog!). Some had health insurance which mostly covered the fee. But, make it important enough, and you’ll find the funds. Sell stuff, borrow from your dearest – just make it important enough. There’s no price tag on early detection and no price tag on peace of mind – truly!
I could easily feel the firm lump in the side of my breast. My G.P. could feel it. Weeks later, my breast surgeon would describe the carcinoma as ‘large’ and said it could have been growing there for the last six months to a year. Eight months earlier, I had been given the ‘all clear’ after having my regular, free mammogram. Maybe the cancer was just a tiny dot back then, maybe it hadn’t even formed.
But now, the lump I could so easily feel with my fingers was completely invisible on the mammogram. The radiologist requested another, so back into the glass sandwich I went.
“I’m actually pretty happy with this,” he said, as he walked into the ultra-sound room, holding the second mammogram image. “I can’t see any changes in texture, no differentiation in the breast tissue…”
The radiographer had shown me how to position myself on the ultrasound bed; my body tipped to one side with a firm, wedge-shaped support-pad behind me, and with my arm back above my head.
The radiologist asked me to hold my fingertip on the exact position where I could feel the lump in my breast. He replaced my finger tip with the ‘scanner.’ And, there it was on the ultrasound screen; the cancer I later indignantly and defiantly named The Fuckity-Fucker and The Little Shit of a Side-kick.
“Hmm, this doesn’t look so good,” he said. He continued to move the scanner over the area, tapping the ultrasound keyboard, taking screen shots, taking measurements.
I can only remember snippets of his sentences. He talked about the tumour’s “undefined margins” – meaning he was having difficulty finding its outer edges – where it started, where it stopped.
As he worked he talked about “the incredible advancements in breast cancer treatment over the last five years” and something about “a phenomenal increase in survival rates.” I tuned out at that point. Survival rates? Everything went into slow motion mode.
The next thing I remember him saying was “we’ll get you back next week for a biopsy.”
“No,” I said firmly. “It’s Friday. I can’t wait all weekend. Please do the biopsy now … or today. I can be here any time today, please?”
Thinking back, I probably sounded all assertive and adamant; a woman not-to-be-messed-with and one who was just not going to accept she’d have to wait several days for a biopsy.
He briefly left the ultra-sound room with the radiographer, then came back to tell me I could wait in the café downstairs; that he’d do the biopsy in an hour. I could have hugged him with gratitude, but instead, I was speechless, numb. On auto-pilot, I went to my little cubicle to change into my own clothes and call my husband.
The biopsy procedure was not painful; just uncomfortable and it certainly bruised over the following week or so and felt quite sore – mostly when I’d gone to bed; those times when I was lying still and was keenly aware of the tumour site.
The results came back in four working days, not five. I had an invasive lobular carcinoma, my G.P. told me. It was approximately 2.8cms wide.
“I gather I probably shouldn’t Google Search that word ‘lobular,’ should I?” I asked.
“Probably not, no,” my G.P. agreed. “There’s a lot of stuff on the internet that’s not quite correct, misinformed, from well-meaning people … stuff that will probably distress you; you know, photos of the more serious cases.”
To this day, I’ve not once Google Searched anything to do with lobular carcinoma or any other types of breast cancer. I call that Sensible Management of the Anxiety Quota.