Mammograms have been described as the "gold standard" of cancer detection, but they aren't. Not if you have a very common condition called "dense breasts" which makes reading the mammogram like "looking for a snowflake in a snowstorm," one radiologist remarked in a You-Tube video. And no, you cannot tell by squeezing your own breast or looking at it whether it has the quality that is medically called "dense."
I went blithely off for my mammogram on March 22, thinking I was wasting my time. Not one woman in my family had ever had breast cancer. I didn't know then that 80% of those who do develop breast cancer have no family history of the illness. Nor did I know that one in eight women (some statistics say one in seven) will come down with it in the course of their lifetimes, the main risk factors being (1) womanhood and (2) getting older. What I wish I'd known on March 22 is that I should have asked for an MRI just because I had dense breasts. The MRI finds what the mammogram doesn't. So, girls, first go find out if you have dense breasts and then get the appropriate test at reasonable intervals.
On March 22, after the mammogram, the sweet radiologist at the hospital, light brown curls falling over her lab coat, spectacles adorning her scholarly-looking face, said, "I have nothing but good news for you!" and I smiled, scoffed at the huge waste of time bothering with the mammogram, went home, and the next day flew to New York for a week-long vacation I very much enjoyed, imagining myself to be in perfect health.
On May 24 as I sat at the table reading, I slipped my left hand under my right armpit. What was that little thing? A pimple? Some fatty tissue?
Couldn't possibly be cancer, because I just had a mammogram!
And you know what? The radiologist still insists the mammogram was clear. Maybe the lump grew overnight like the mushrooms in our garden. Or maybe Radiologist #2, a guy, who rolls his eyes at the first radiologist's report and insists the cancer showed, is right. I don't know but I'm sure glad that after two hours of dithering and telling myself the doctor's office was probably closed anyway at four-thirty in the afternoon (it wasn't) I resolved to call the next day. I did call the next day, but the following day was a holiday here in Germany, so I saw her on Friday, two days after calling. She harrumphed and sent me to a radiologist who did a needle biopsy and let me know I'd see results on Tuesday. There is a malignancy, but it is said to be contained, and I am told I will have nine or ten unpleasant months ahead of me, the first stage of which--the insertion of the chemotherapy port above the healthy breast under local anesthesia--was as pleasant as the plucking of a tooth at the dentists's, only moreso. Soon I'll be bald, unless it's possible to use a cold cap. I'm interested in hearing from other very active fiftyish-sixtyish women who have kept up their active schedules, including sports or dance, during their ordeals.
And check out your breasts! Regularly!