Next year will make 20 years since my mother died of breast cancer. She was 33. I was 15. Losing her has drastically changed the course of my life. I imagine that when other people’s parents pass away from natural causes or something non-hereditary, the pain lingers on in a different way than it does for me. For me, not only do I grieve not having a mother to talk to when I am happy or sad or reach a milestone, but every year I struggle to get through the month of October: breast cancer awareness month. The month in which it seems like the whole country celebrates the survivors, while also raising awareness about getting regular checkups, is also the month that reminds me of my loss. I am reminded that my mother is not a survivor and if I get breast cancer, maybe I won’t be a survivor either.
According to the American Cancer Society, women should start getting annual mammograms at age 45. I’ve been getting a mammogram just about every year since I was 21 years old. Every year, I must explain to the doctor that my mother died at 33 and my grandmother also died from breast cancer so that they can convince the insurance company that it is medically necessary. It is a frustrating process to remind my doctor of this annually, and then repeat it again when I get to the breast imaging center. Every year, usually in October, I am reminded of my loss and am also filled with tremendous fear that the technician will find a cancerous lump during my mammogram.
Last October, I went to a new breast imaging center for my annual mammogram. I know some people say it hurts but for me it’s not too painful. You walk into a room, a technician puts your breast on a metal plate that is usually cold and applies pressure with a plastic plate as you hold on to the side of the machine, temporarily and periodically holding your breath while an image is taken. It does not typically take long, but the anxiety that I feel wondering if the technician is photographing a tumor is indescribable. Over the years, I have tried to stuff the worry to the back of my mind, but it is not easy, especially because each year I am closer to 33. But last October, after my mammogram, the doctor told me that he wanted me to get an MRI of my breast so they could get better images. This was not alarming for me. I appreciated that he wanted to make sure they had the best images. I felt like if the MRI did not find anything then I would be free. Another year of life would be granted to me!
I waited 6 months before going in for the MRI. I was nervous that it would hurt. That is really not a good reason, but I wanted to live my extra year of life without worrying about breast cancer. Randomly, I was telling my line sister about my anxiety about the MRI and she shared with me that she had one herself because her mother was a breast cancer survivor who was also diagnosed under 40 years old. We talked for a while and then I made the appointment. She offered to go with me, but I did not think it would be necessary. The way she described her experience should have made me nervous, but I asked for an open MRI so that I would not feel claustrophobic. The MRI was not bad. I laid faced down on a metal bed listening to the radio through some large headphones that I was given. It was loud in the MRI machine but after 30 minutes, it was over. I received a call from my doctor a week or so later, saying that they wanted me to come back in for a sonogram.
No one had said they found anything, therefore I thought everyone was being extra cautious since it was my first time at that imaging center. So, during my sonogram, I laid on the table with my left arm raised above my head, chilling. I was happy that these doctors cared enough to triple check my breast. The technician was moving around my left breast at a steady pace with her lubricated sonogram tool while simultaneously looking at the computer screen. I felt myself drifting into a light sleep and then I felt it. There was pain. The technician also felt it. She looked at me and rolled that tool over the same area again. Again, I felt pain. “Shit!”. She took some images and said that she would be back with the doctor. After about ten minutes, the doctor came into the room looking like a deer in headlights. “Oh my goodness, I should have never come by myself,” was all I was thinking as she told me they wanted to do yet another test. There was a lump. She could not say for sure if it was cancerous but with my history she was concerned. I had to get a biopsy to determine if it was indeed cancer. I do not know how I made it out of that imaging center, I felt faint. I was alone. “How was I going to tell people that I might have breast cancer or that I have breast cancer? Will I be a survivor?” I couldn’t get the look on that doctor’s face out of my mind. She must know that I am about to be in a fight for my life.
A couple weeks later, I made my appointment for the biopsy. I conducted some research online to find out if biopsies hurt, if breast cancer lumps are painful, and how soon I would get the results. I did not want to inundate myself with information because I wanted to be hopeful but as the doctor expressed, “with my history,” I was concerned. I asked my line sister if she could come with me to get the biopsy. There was no way I was going to walk out of there alone again. She was not sure if she could rearrange her work schedule so I asked a few of my other line sisters if one of them could be a back up for her. To my surprise, every person in that group chat, rearranged their schedule to attend my appointment with me. I was overwhelmed by the support.
When I walked back into that imaging center for my fourth test, the biopsy, I walked in with my own little army. Six of my line sisters walked through that door with me and two more of them facetimed us before I went back for the procedure. I knew then that regardless of the results, I would indeed be a survivor.
It took a week to get the biopsy results, but I was clear! I was granted another breast cancer free year of life. I was granted the opportunity to share with you my story, to encourage you to get regular breast exams, to let you know the pain is temporary, and to once again thank my line sisters for showing up for me and letting me know that I was not alone.
October is the month that is used to raise awareness about getting your breast examined. It is also the month in which breast cancer survivors are celebrated. For me it is the scariest month of my life. It is a reminder that life is short and that regardless of the statistics, people can be diagnosed with breast cancer before they are even allowed by their insurance companies to get a mammogram. As you celebrate the survivors in your life, please don’t forget to acknowledge the strength of those who fought for their lives but did not survive. Take time to think about the daughters of these women who live in fear of being diagnosed with breast cancer eventually. Most importantly, take time to support and celebrate your family and friends while they are still here.