My husband looked concerned about the voice mail message from the mammography center on Wednesday. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “They said they’d call for a quality check.”
I’d been very pleased that my mammogram on Monday went well. With the new machinery, there was no pain. The whole process from check in to check out took about 20 minutes.
But when I returned the call, the voice at the other end told me that I needed to come back in for more films to check out an area the radiologist wanted to see in more detail. We scheduled an appointment for the next afternoon. She assured me that I’d see the radiologist before I left, and I would know what would be in the report.
I went into full panic mode. I didn’t grade any papers. I didn’t eat supper. I went to bed and shut down. It didn’t help to know that even if the new films showed a lump, it would almost certainly be benign. The mammogram was supposed to be the final medical test in a series started this fall after my annual oncology check-up. I’d had a mole removed and a stress echo-cardiagram a few weeks earlier. I kept reminding myself that those procedures came out fine, but it didn’t seem to help.
Thursday, I went through the motions at school. A colleague covered my last class for me so that I could get to my appointment on time. I didn’t tell her what the appointment was for. My husband knew, and my immediate supervisor knew where I was going. I didn’t want to discuss it. I had enough anxiety, and I didn’t want anyone else worrying.
The same mammography technician took the new pictures, including some close-ups of the area that concerned the radiologist. Then she sent me back to the dressing room to see if he would want an ultrasound. He did, so a few minutes later the ultrasound lady was showing me a bunch of little black areas that I recognized as fluid-filled cysts from earlier adventures in breast ultrasounds.
Then she went off to show the films to the radiologist. Soon he was in the room, watching her go back through the ultrasound process for a better view. “Everything is fine,” he assured me. “With our new equipment, we can see structures that weren’t visible on your old films. I just needed to be sure. You have a lot of tiny cysts, but you don’t need to worry about them. They’re harmless.”
I called my husband from the dressing room before I left to tell him that all was well, and I could tell from the relief in his voice how worried he had been.
I’ve been thinking about this experience and have realized several things. ** 1. We never get over the fear of a recurrence or a new cancer.** No matter how optimistically we talk about putting cancer behind us, it’s always there. Those memories can help by keeping us vigilant, but they can also cause anxiety levels that are higher than the facts warrant.
2. New advances in technology mean you can’t assume that your previous experiences with a test predict what will happen the next time you go in for a test. I’d been dreading the discomfort of my annual screening mammogram, but with the new machine, I scarcely felt a thing. This time the new technology also ended up causing the call back for more films because it showed so much more detail.
**3. We never know what other people around us are going through. ** I’m sure some of my colleagues found me distracted or distant on Thursday. There is probably a student who is hurt because I didn’t pay complete attention to her explanation of a problem. How many times have I assumed someone is incompetent or uncaring when really they are dealing with a problem they can’t share?
The new mammogram machine can see what used to be hidden. Now I just need a personal device to see below the surface and learn to be more empathetic with the people I encounter every day.
Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) survivor diagnosed in 1998. She has written about cancer for HealthCentral since 2007. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)© organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. Phyllis attends conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. She tweets at @mrsphjohnson.