check them out, early and often

That’s right, dear readers, I’m talking about your breasts. 

I am sure we all know someone who has been afflicted by the horrible disease of breast cancer in one of its insidious forms. One out of every seven or eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. According to one calculation, a new case of breast cancer is diagnosed every 2.2 minutes. 

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Awareness of course is critical for early detection, which saves lives. Awareness is critical for advocacy and action, both for prevention to eliminate the environmental causes, and support for a cure.

Yesterday I had my first mammogram in nearly five years. I had a baseline years ago because I believed I had a high risk on my maternal side. My grandmother and her mother, aunts, and their daughters all died of breast cancer. My nana’s wasn’t detected until later in life, however, and it skipped my mom, so my doctor thought the gene had not passed to me. I inherited my grandmother’s breasts, though (and my mom has virtually none). I have large, dense and fibrous breasts, which makes detection quite difficult. Seriously, it takes like a half hour when I check myself carefully. 

While I am reluctant to say this, I have doubted the utility of routine mammograms in younger women. Aside from repeat exposure to ionizing radiation, a known carcinogen, they are not entirely accurate (with both false negatives and false positives). My Mother-in-law, for instance, had two false negatives before cancerous lumps were later detected (and successfully removed) with the aid of a skilled physician. 

My new ob, a breast health specialist, told me candidly she even questions the value of self exams for many women — though she would never state that publicly — because many women tend not to know exactly what to feel for. So at my annual exam in September, we discussed screening options. 

My insurance won’t cover MRIs. I had heard about thermography, but she said due to their sensitivity it’s difficult to even determine what is a cancerous growth, and there are often false positives that cause unnecessary stress, concern, and pain (biopsy). She recommended a digital mammogram which is still radiation but she believes it captures a better image for dense breast tissue like mine. 

So for the past six weeks, I had been dreading my appointment. Partly because, well, let’s face it, getting your big old boobs smushed down between plexiglass plates like a pressed pancake is really uncomfortable, painful even. The side views hurt the worst. But of course I was more afraid of what they might find…

The hospital inevitably reminds me of one of my many surgeries. I’ve had procedures at three hospitals, two of them twice, plus all the pre- and post-op visits. I walked past the room where we had our first IVF workshop (ironically the same day we completed our adoption workshops around the corner, just a few hours later). 

But walking into that waiting room and seeing those heavy faces was hard. At first it was great to see a room packed full of women getting checked. Then you realize that some of them were there for re-checks after surgery or treatment. Some were there because of a scare, or biopsies. One woman needed proof that she’d been cancer-free for 10 years, so she could get her insurance renewed. There were daughters with their mothers, and waiting husbands. The mood was solemn. 

When I was finally called back, 45 minutes late, the very strong and not so warm large Russian technician used her muscles to maneuver my girls in all kinds of crazy positions. After she secured my sufficient discomfort, she took the films and I went back to wait.

Thankfully, a radiologist on staff reviews all images before sending patients home. If they see something of concern, they tell you and bring you back to either take more film, or decide if other diagnostics are needed. Otherwise, you can go. So I waited.

Then the strong Russian tech came out and told me to come back in again. The doctor saw something on one side. Probably nothing. But something. She took two more films, usng a different technique where they roll the breast tissue around. Ouch. Then she told me to wait there. I didn’t have to go back to the waiting room with that annoying blue gown that wouldn’t stay closed, and with no bra to support the girls.  

That wait was the longest five minutes. I thought if the doctor comes in, it’s bad. If it’s Russian lady again, maybe it’s nothing. I have never been in a hospital and hoped not to see a doctor so badly. 

She came back in. Everything was fine. Whew.  B r e a t h e …

As I got dressed and exhaled my relief, I was fully aware that several women in that office at that very moment were not getting such good news. I saw their faces. I heard some speaking to one another. I walked past a woman in her late 30s, early 40s, in an exam room, on a cell phone with the look of fear in her eyes…

Early detection is said to be the best medicine. So absolutely check yourself regularly. Get to know what is normal and what is not. Be sure to have regular clinical exams by a skilled professional. 

Yet I also believe prevention is key. While we cannot control a genetic predisposition, we can try to eliminate additional risk from environmental and other factors. Yet it is estimated that 70% of breast cancers have no known cause (e.g., genetics). 

Our life choices are only part of the equation. We can eat healthy and stay active. We can hope the hormones we ingest are as minimal as our doctors and the studies tell us. We do what we can do.

With industrial pollutants and other hazardous substances now detectable in our own bodies, environmental risk is a significant factor. We can press for more research into the root causes of cancer. We can press the private and public sector to reduce our exposures toxic chemicals. We can choose to buy non-toxic healthy products that don’t threaten harm.

We should at least be informed and have the ability to choose our own risks, rather than be unavoidably subjected to risks by others who couldn’t care less. 

There are so many inspiring women out there living with and surviving breast cancer. We owe it to them and to ourselves to do something, anything. 

So slap on a pink ribbon if you like, but please, don’t believe the hype. Many companies greenwash the public into believing they are doing something for breast cancer, when they aren’t really. Some may even be contributing to the problem. Much more is needed to address the root causes of this dreaded disease and press for a cure.

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~ by luna on October 22, 2008.

12 Responses to “check them out, early and often”

  1. Great PSA Luna–a reminder we all need. Glad your scan came back a-ok!

  2. Well said. I’ve been getting mammograms religiously since turning 40 and while, like you I have a hard time due to dense tissue which really hates being manipulated to get a better look, I’m grateful that I’ve never had to hear the words, “we don’t like what we see.”

    I echo your thoughts about how hard it is to see women getting bad news of any kind … too reminiscent of the bad news I used to get on the organs further south…

  3. Thanks for the reminder, Luna. I’ve been getting mammograms every year since I turned 41 (I also have dense tissue) & so far, so good. It’s not my favourite way to spend an afternoon, but it’s over relatively quickly & I like the reassurance!

  4. Thanks, Luna! I’ll make sure to ask for digital (I also have wacky dense breast tissue).

    So glad you’re alright.

  5. I was thinking of you yesterday — glad you’re done for another year.

    I’ve had a few years where I have to keep going back for testing and poking and cutting. NO FUN! But this year it was all good.

    Thanks for the reminder and the education. Makes me gladder I found some natural laundry soap for my family. (Makes sense if you read my All Thumbs post today).

  6. I have been thinking about this a lot because I haven’t had a mammogram yet and I know I should have one next year at the latest. I’m so glad your something turned out to be nothing.

  7. Wonderful post, Luna. With so many pink ribbons everywhere, I think I sometimes forget to think about what they REALLY mean. Not looking forward to my first mammogram, but so glad yours came out okay!

  8. I had a digital mammography once because of dense breast tissue. Unfortunately, the tissue folded over on itself, and they thought it was suspicious. More rounds of pictures. And then an ultrasound. And fortunately, just a conclusion that it was tissue folding in on itself. Scary stuff though.

  9. Great post! I recently lost a friend to this horrible disease. So glad your ‘girls’ got the all-clear! Hugs–

  10. Thanks. I so need to schedule my mam. Sigh.

  11. Thanks for this post, Luna. My mother was diagnosed with the breast cancer that eventually led to her death when she was the same age as I am now (37), and I am now careful to do regular self-examinations. Unfortunately, the National Health Service here in the UK will not offer me regular mammograms until I turn 40.

    I am glad that you got yourself checked out, but sorry that you had that brief scare – you must have been so relieved to discover that everything was OK.

  12. […] the last two weeks have all been about infertility, loss, and grief (and let’s not forget boobies). Come to think of it, aside from the books I’ve read on open adoption and ones we’ve […]

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