So I spent several hours yesterday having my boobs crushed in order to have various pictures of their insides taken.
Actually, it was only one boob, and the crushing part of the festivities didn’t last all that long. For those of you who have not had this done, though, you should know that this medical procedure is like the gift that keeps on giving. You’re aware that it’s happened for way longer than you want to be.
Anyhow. This is the fourth such boob-crushing I’ve gotten to experience. And I’m a mere 37 years old. This does not seem to me to bode well for the future of my relationship with my breasts.
What follows is long, so it’s going below the fold. Read at your own risk.
The first time I had this done, four years ago, I kind of brought it on myself. I mentioned to my female parts doctor that one of my great-aunts died of breast cancer before 40, and that one of my aunts developed breast cancer at about 55, and that my mother has had several suspicious (but fortunately benign) lumps removed, and that my sister, then 26, had just had a bad scare. She blinked at me a bit, and said, yeah, I should get a mammogram.
So I did. And I’d heard all the boob-crushing rumors, so I thought I knew what I was in for. But I didn’t realize that: (1) they were going to crush my boobs, one at a time, between a cold metal plate and a weird clear plastic plate with outlines of crushed boobs on it; (2) they were going to crush them from several different angles; (3) the boob-crushing machine was going to inform them when they hadn’t gotten sufficient “compression”; and (4) the machine would be operated by loose-breasted women with absolutely no sympathy for the pain that the crushing produced in someone of my particular boobal makeup, about which more shortly. Needless to say, it was not pleasant.
But what I also didn’t count on was the what-next part of the whole affair. About three weeks later, my department was having its annual end-of-the-academic-year lunch in the backyard of the house I was then living in. Our administrative assistant had gone over to the house early, to coordinate with the caterer while the rest of us were stuck in a meeting. When I arrived, she told me that she had signed for a registered letter for me, and that she hoped that it was okay.
The registered letter told me that my mammogram was abnormal, and that I was advised in the strongest possible terms to call my doctor immediately.
But I had a house full of colleagues. So I had to wait until they were gone. And once they were, so was my doctor: it was Friday at 2, and obviously time for her to be elsewhere. The letter, incidentally, was postmarked ten days earlier; it had been sent to an old address, despite my having updated my records. And so I called a pal, and brought her the letter, and asked whether I should be as freaked out as I was right then.
And to her eternal credit, she said yes. “That’s some awfully strong language,” she said.
I’m not quite sure how I managed to make it until Monday, but somehow I did, and also somehow managed to survive the several hour delay it took to actually get my doctor on the telephone. She told me that my mammogram had indeed come back abnormal, and that I needed to call the boob-crusher and make an appointment for a diagnostic crushing, which I promptly did. And they scheduled me for the first available appointment.
Six weeks later.
So I spent six weeks, which I only hazily remember, trying not to think about my boobs at all. And I really thought I was okay with the whole thing, until the day of the diagnostic.
But the first thing that made clear to me how not okay I was was that the diagnostic boob-crushing did not at all involve a metal plate and a plastic plate. Instead, my boob was to be crushed against the metal plate with a smaller plastic disc that would apparently allow for a focus on the parts that looked abnormal. I’ll just say that this did not feel better than the plastic plate. I’m no wimp about pain, but I had to hang onto the arm of the machine as the pictures were taken, mostly because my vision was greying out a bit and I was afraid that if I passed out I’d either be left there dangling from the machine by my boob or I’d fall out of the machine and they’d make me stand up and do it again. The tech was mildly sympathetic, but seemed mostly alarmed by my overreaction.
Then she told me to sit in the waiting area while she made sure the pictures were okay.
Then she told me that she was walking the pictures across the street, to the hospital, so the radiologist could read them right then.
Then she told me that I could go.
I was, needless to say, a little perplexed. I asked what that meant. She said that the doctor said that everything was fine.
Fine as in normal?
Yes. Apparently the first abnormal images were produced by — and I wish I could get this phrase out of my head — folded breast tissue.
I thanked her and got dressed and went to the car but burst into hysterical tears halfway there. And I sat in the parking lot and cried for fifteen minutes before I was able to drive. Because I’d spent the last six weeks convinced that I was going to be told something much, much worse than that my boobs are solid enough to fold when crushed.
A little over two years later — last summer — I found a lump. The week before I was leaving for Hawaii. Knowing full well that I could do nothing right then, given how long it was going to take to get to see my female parts doctor, much less how long the rest of the steps would take, I just ignored it. And had a lovely vacation.
And so I just kept the appointment I already had for my annual exam, which was a couple of months later. Because I just didn’t want to think about it in any more pressing way. So to speak.
But I did point out the lump to her during the exam, and she looked at my file, and saw the previous abnormal. And said that I should make an appointment for a screening and a diagnostic boob-crushing, at the same time.
My appointment was the first week of November. The boob crushers had, since my last visit, moved into a lovely new facility, and had upgraded the crushing technologies a bit. So I got taken from the outer waiting room, to the dressing room, to the inner waiting room, to the crushing room. And the tech — the same one who did my previous diagnostic — took the screening pictures and sent me back to the inner waiting room.
And came back and got me, saying we needed to do a diagnostic.
And I worked really, really hard on not freaking out and running out of there instead of following her. It turned out that the pointy disc was not necessary; instead there were just more pictures with the plastic plate from more bizarre angles and with greater degrees of crushing. It was no fun, but there was no danger that I was going to pass out this time, no tears, no near-hysteria. And the tech sent me back to the inner waiting room.
And came back and got me, saying that the doctor wanted an ultrasound, but that the first available slot was at two that afternoon, and could I come back then?
I said sure, and changed, and headed back to my office, and stared into space for a little over two hours. Did I mention that this was two days after the last presidential election? I’d had about all the crushing I could take.
I went back at two, and was left in the outer waiting room for forty minutes, waiting. The tech — a different one — finally came and got me and brought me into the ultrasound room, where she had me lie down on a gurney, propped up at a most uncomfortable angle on a foam wedge, with my arm over my head. She looked over the order from the doctor, and said, “so you found a lump.” And I said yes, and showed her where it was. And she said, “and where’s the other one?”
So she fired up the machine and started taking her pictures, which fortunately did not involve any crushing. And just as I thought good grief, how can anybody read that, it’s just static, a huge black hole appeared in the middle of the image. I watched her as she marked out the edges of the hole, measuring it, taking pictures from many angles.
After that, the tech said nothing. Nothing. Except, okay, we’re done, you can get dressed.
When I asked her what now, she said I’d hear from my doctor. When I asked her when my doctor would have the results, she said five business days. And she walked off.
As I walked out past the receptionist, I asked her, too. I was shaking a bit, and she asked if wanted to talk with the radiologist. I said yes, and she disappeared for a couple of minutes, and came back to tell me that he was in the middle of a procedure and wouldn’t be able to talk with me today. So I wandered off to my car, and tried to find that state of denial I’d been in the last time around.
Back at the office, thank Google, I was able to find some pictures that looked a mighty lot like what I’d seen, and they were of benign cysts. So I breathed a bit easier, and went about my life.
And five days later, made the first call to my doctor. And was told the results weren’t back yet, and to try again next week.
And tried again next week. And the nurse found my results, and told me that everything was normal.
And I said that I needed to talk to the doctor. Who was with a patient, and would call me back.
And who called me back that evening while I was at dinner, and left a message saying that everything was normal, and that I should have another diagnostic done in six months.
And I called the next day, saying that I needed to talk with her. Because what I saw on that screen may well have been benign, but it damn well wasn’t normal. Normal doesn’t require another boob-crushing in six months. But she wasn’t in the office, and wouldn’t be in the office again until next week, but she would call me back.
And she called me back the next week, when I wasn’t there, and left a message saying that everything was normal.
And I called her back again. Because I needed to tell her that I’m not a child, and I’m not an imbecile, and I’m not a hypochondriac. That I spent just as many years in school as she did, if not more, and that I am proactive about my health, and that I want all of the information, not just the punch line.
And she left me another message the next day.
And shortly after that, I got the new referral form for the next diagnostic in the mail, and written on it was “follow-up on benign breast cyst R.” So I stopped calling.
The follow-up was yesterday. No screening this time; just the waiting, and the diagnostic, done by a very kind tech who encouraged me to lay off the caffeine, and then more waiting. I even got some grading done. After about ten minutes, she came and told me that the doctor wanted an ultrasound — surprise! — and that there was one person ahead of me, so if I could sit tight they’d get me in soon. So I called the office, and told our administrative assistant that I wasn’t going to make it to the department meeting, and did more grading while I waited.
Yesterday’s ultrasound tech was super chatty. She narrated the entire event, including measurements and positions, but the patter was soothing. In no small part because she actually told me what she was seeing, and how she knew what it was. “You see the light part under the dark spot?” she asked me. “That’s how we know it’s just a cyst, because there’s clear transmission through fluid.”
But this time there were what seemed to me like dozens of cysts, all over the place. “You’re really going to keep me busy,” she joked.
I’m not sure what this bodes. But there are several things that have been haunting me all day.
The first is why no one has managed to invent a means of breast cancer screening that doesn’t involve crushing. Going straight to ultrasound for standard screenings wouldn’t be terribly efficient, because the ultrasound does take much longer, it doesn’t provide a comprehensive image, and it would be too easy to miss something. On the other hand, with boobs like mine — that look under ultrasound like they’re filled with jellybeans — a mammogram is unlikely ever to be definitive. And it’s just damned painful, because inbetween all those jellybeans are lots and lots of nerves.
The second is that I seem to be in for a bunch more crushing and other picture-taking, unless something changes. And that something may well be me finally having to get clear of the caffeine entirely.
The third thing haunting me is the image of the woman who emerged from the back of the office while I was waiting for the diagnostic pictures to be developed. She was carrying a cup of water someone had brought her, and a tissue, and a brochure. And she was crying.
Whatever else happened to me yesterday, that didn’t. And I simply cannot imagine the ways that my life would be changing today if it had.