My Breast Cancer Screening Journey (So Far)

deuteronomy 31

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I’m 30 years old. My mother was diagnosed with DCIS–an early form of breast cancer contained within a milk duct–at age 40. My maternal grandmother died of ovarian cancer at 50. My maternal great-grandmother passed away from breast cancer in her 70s.

Given my family history, my gynecologist recommended I undergo breast cancer screening 10 years before my mom’s first diagnosis. Per the advice of my nutritionist, I started the breast cancer screening journey with thermography in January (a method many alternative medicine providers recommend to complement the findings of conventional mammography). Those results were clear. I got my first preventative baseline mammogram in July. Two days later, I was called back to the clinic due to the presence of “suspicious findings” in the form of microcalcifications at middle depth on my left side.

I had advanced, magnified diagnostic screening this past Monday. My technician was nice. She said she was also at high risk for breast cancer, had been called back for advanced screening four times, and even had a biopsy once which was negative. “So I haven’t had cancer–yet!” She said what’s most crazy to her is the fact that, even though she’s genetically at high risk, she’s never had cancer–but one of her Spin classmates who does Iron Man competitions and eats organic and has no genetic risk factors got breast cancer last year. “You just never know,” she said.

When my scans were complete, they were sent to radiology. My technician let me know it could be a while, so I sat down in the waiting room where my twin sister also was. My sister is also at high risk, with the same risk factors as me, and was in for her first baseline preventative scan that day. We chatted for a minute and then she got called back for her mammogram.(She has since been called back for extra imaging and cleared, hooray!) Then I got called in to meet with the radiologists.

“Oh, you have two doctors today!” my technician said. This freaked me out. It actually felt like my stomach fell out of my butt. I was so stressed that I forgot to tell them I’d brought my husband with me. I brought him for this reason: so that he could be in the room when and if the doctor wanted to talk to me. So I sat there in silence, alone, as he sat out in the lobby 30 feet away. The radiologists explained to me what calcifications are, what my cells might be doing and why they were concerned about that. They recommended a biopsy. I asked what that was. They explained to me what a stereotactic biopsy is: the area is numbed with local anesthesia before a needle guided with x-ray technology is injected to the area of concern and removes a sample of tissue. The tissue is removed and is examined closely to ensure they got the right area / cells. The biopsy is then examined by pathologists. Results are delivered in 24 hours: It’s either cancer, or it’s not.

The scans had confirmed what the radiologists initially thought: Due to the clustering and “abnormal” branching formation the microcalcifications are making, it could be a sign of early stage breast cancer. The only way to tell for sure is to conduct a stereotactic biopsy. The biopsy would tell the doctors one of three things: 1) It’s cancer 2) It’s not cancer but it’s something to keep an eye on 3) It’s an atypical cell formation and nothing to worry about. 

The radiologists said they were ready to do the biopsy then and there, and I told them that I’d like a second opinion before doing an invasive procedure. They said that it was totally fine for me to take some time to think about it. Before they left, I asked if they would definitely recommend a biopsy, and they both said “Absolutely.”

So I called Mayo Clinic’s Breast Clinic. I’m scheduled for a consultation there on August 30th, which could stretch into 3 to 5 days of appointments depending on the kind of tests and treatments I might need. I’m in the process of hand-collecting all of my test results so far which has been challenging and extremely time consuming. In addition to seeing the breast clinic team at Mayo, I have an appointment with my nutritionist next Monday to discuss the findings so far. I will also talk with my gynecologist on the phone for her interpretation of the results so far as well as she is the referring physician.

In the midst of the past week, my mind has been racing. The moment the radiologists sat me down and explained why I needed a biopsy, my mind went into hyperdrive. Thoughts switch from “I’m only 30 years old!” to “I’m about to enter the 3rd year of my Ph.D. program” to “I don’t even have kids yet!” to “I might have breast cancer” to “I don’t have time for this.” The one thought that sticks with me constantly is I don’t have time for this. What’s funny is, as I pray about the situation I find myself in and ask God what He has to say about all of this, the only word that comes to mind is WAIT. But WHAT DOES THAT MEAN??? I’ve cried, panicked, and have Googled every search term you can imagine that relates to my situation–major questions I’ve uncovered with various results include: What is a biopsy? Do biopsies spread cancer? How many people get called back for mammograms? How many people get biopsies?

But I’ve stopped looking at the numbers because statistically I’m an anomaly. According to stats from the American College of Radiology I found in an NPR article, approximately 1 in 10 women get called back after mammograms (closer to 2 out of 10 for first-time baseline mammogram scans). Only 1 in 10 women under the age of 50 have calcifications at all. And even less than that get biopsies. That’s me. I’m an anomaly. So when I look at statements from the American Cancer Society like “fewer than 1 in 10 women called back for more tests are found to have cancer,” I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or not. Because my journey isn’t over yet. I might be cancer-free and the microcalcifications that look like the Big Dipper are just there for show; or I might have breast cancer at age 30. Either way, God knows and is in control!

Things I’ve learned on this journey so far that I hope are encouraging to anyone also going through this include:

  1. Attaining medical records for a second opinion is extremely difficult but second opinions are worth it. I have been scrambling all over the city to track down the results of my exams–getting images AND written/transcribed reports is immensely difficult. It takes a long time and there are federal privacy regulations and forms to fill out and it doesn’t seem like the medical world wants anyone to have access to their personal records. If anyone has any tips about making this part of the process easier, let me know!!! I know it takes a long time but is worth the effort–every doctor I’ve talked to is glad I’m getting a second opinion (even the radiologists I met with first).
  2. Managing emotional stress is hard but talking and staying busy helps. I’ve always worked out but at this point working out is not optional. I’m at the gym every day because it’s one of the only places I can get my mind totally off of my circumstances and throw some weights around. Lifetime Fitness (or Crunch Fitness) FTW. Also, talking with people is SO important. My husband has been a constant source of comfort, prayer and support and I’ve talked to my mom a ton about her own personal experience with breast cancer. I respect her so much more than I ever have (as if I could respect her than I already did!) for going through diagnosis and treatment back in 2000.
  3. Prayer works. I’ve been praying for good doctors, nurses and technicians, and I’ve had amazing doctors, nurses and technicians so far. They have been patient and kind with me as I ask a billion questions. I even looked up their training: One of the radiologists who met with me got her degrees from Northwestern University (like me!! :)) and the University of Chicago. I’ve also been asking for prayer from people and have been sent encouraging notes and Bible verses that are especially encouraging like Psalm 121 and Deuteronomy 31:8. I’m putting all of this out on social media because prayer is a privilege and I know God is in control. I’m a transparent person and it’s been amazing to see that I’m not alone in any of this. PRAISE THE LORD!!!

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