Cancer log 2: I find…

Cancer Log, 2:

I find it scary not knowing what's coming. I learned yesterday that a friend of mine in her 60s hasn't had a mammogram at all yet, which startled me, and made me wonder how many women I knew were avoiding them because they didn't want to know, or because they thought it would be painful. I'm certainly immensely glad I went for mine, and I wanted to take a few minutes to walk you through the mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy, just in case that helps put anyone's mind at ease. Gentlemen, pay attention too -- you may one day want to help support a woman through this. (Men can get breast cancer too, of course, but I don't think they currently do mammograms; someone correct me if I'm wrong.)

The day of your routine screening mammogram, you need about an hour or a bit more set aside. The procedure won't take that long, but there's paperwork and waiting and such. Dress in two pieces; you get to keep your pants and shoes on for this one. They'll have you take off your top and bra and give you a robe that closes in the front. When it's your turn, you go into the room, where there's a big machine with large heavy plates. The tech puts little stickers on your nipples, with metal markers -- that makes it clear on the scan where the nipples are. She'll have you take the robe half off, slipping your arm out of the sleeve, and I could never decide if I appreciated the other half of the robe being left on, for some faint illusion of modesty / protection, or if it just felt silly. The tech will have you step forward, and she'll manipulate your breast to the right position on the plate, shifting you as necessary. She may want you to hold onto a bar for steadiness / position. Then comes the squishing, and yes, this bit does hurt. It's mostly discomfort, but as the plates compress, there might be a few seconds of actual pain. In my experience, it's not nearly as bad as, say, stubbing a toe, but your mileage may vary. But it's over quickly -- you hold your breath and try to stay still for the few seconds needed, and then you can breathe again and it's over. They'll do this several times, maybe three on each breast, and then you're done. The first few times I did mammograms, they found nothing, and just told me to come back a year later.

If there's a suspicious result, they'll have you come back for a more thorough version (diagnostic mammogram). More images, more squishing, same level of discomfort. In my case, that same day, after the radiologist viewed the images, they asked me to stay on for an ultrasound, so I'd allocate more like two hours or so for this process. There's a fair bit of intermittent waiting, so you might want to bring a book, or headphones and music. I was a bit too anxious to read, it turned out, but the internet was nicely distracting.

The ultrasound is painless; I did a lot of them during my pregnancies (because I had uterine fibroids that they wanted to keep an eye on), so I was familiar with them. You lie on a bed (again, pants on, with the robe), and they put gel on your breast, and then move the wand across the breast, pressing gently. That's pretty much it; they do that for a while, taking pictures. Again, consult with the radiologist, who might do more imaging if she wants more pictures somewhere. Then they clean you up and you can get dressed.

They had me come back in on a different day for the biopsy. Allocate an hour and a half or so. Pants on, robe on top. You lie down in the bed, and the radiologist comes at you with a long needle. This is the part at which I stopped watching -- I was gazing at the ceiling for the rest of it. I chatted with her about her kids, which was nicely distracting. The first needle delivers anesthetic, and it feels just like the one that does that at the dentist -- initial prick, a bit of stinging for a minute or two. That's the worst of it, and it's not bad. Then the biopsy itself a few minutes later -- I didn't see the device, but it sounds like a staple gun. You'll feel pressure with each snap of the biopsy needle, but it shouldn't hurt. I did find it all somewhat unnerving. The biopsy part takes about ten to fifteen minutes, I think.

That's it -- then it's just rewarding yourself with chocolate (or your treat of choice), waiting for the results, and reminding yourself that 7 out of 10 times they do a breast biopsy, it comes back negative. Likely, you'll be fine.

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