I may have the closest watched breasts in town. I have dense breasts with cysts and microcalcifications. It sounds way more dramatic than it actually is—the largest cyst measures less than one centimeter in diameter. My mammograms are accompanied by ultrasounds and occur every six months because radiologists cannot always see my cysts through dense tissue.
Having your breasts flattened, squashed, and contorted during a mammogram is no fun. In fact, it’s really painful. The ultrasound that follows involves prodding with a wand and cold gel, applying extra pressure over cyst areas. It almost feels like a spa treatment compared to a mammogram. I am no wuss either. I gave birth to both of my children naturally, sans the epidural and pain medication. I dealt with childbirth just fine, yet I find mammograms excruciating. I’m not sure if having dense breasts and cysts make mammograms more painful, but I literally see tiny flashes of light when the technician compresses my breasts in the mammography machine and turns that damn crank…one, two, three times. The cherry on top is at 5’1″ tall, I usually have to stand on my tippy-toes while one of my breasts is compressed and held hostage by a seemingly vicious, ice cold machine.
I was scared the first time I was told I had cysts and had to repeat my mammogram and ultrasound a few months later. My mind went to the worst places. Dying wasn’t an option. My children needed a mother and I had every intention of getting them to adulthood. When the repeat mammogram results came back fine, disaster seemed to be averted…until the next scare happened six months later. One of my cysts appeared to be a solid mass instead of fluid filled, so I was sent to a breast surgeon. I wasn’t scared; I was petrified. I lost not one, but two friends to breast cancer in the previous five years. One was a college friend and only 37 years old. She left a toddler and a three month old behind and passed within a few months of her diagnosis. The other, 39, was a high school friend, who fought heroically before the cancer metastasized to her brain and spinal cord. She didn’t stand a chance.
I had to wait three long weeks for my appointment with the breast surgeon, which felt like a torturous eternity. My good friend accompanied me to the appointment because I needed the support. I wanted my cyst biopsied and removed altogether. After looking at my mammography images, the breast surgeon told me she was 100% certain my cyst was not malignant. She showed me images of cancerous cysts. Really, there was no comparison. I entered the surgeon’s office prepared for the worst and ready to battle cancer with every fiber of my being. I left feeling foolish for worrying so much. Initially, I was frustrated the radiologist unnecessarily scared the crap out of me, but soon realized I should be thankful an overly cautious radiologist had my back.
I learned a lot from the breast surgeon, though. I always thought family history was the most important factor in determining whether a person gets breast cancer, but I learned it’s not and only accounts for a small percentage of breast cancer diagnoses. Since there was no history of breast cancer in my family, I incorrectly assumed I was safe. I thought breastfeeding my children for a combined two years shielded me from breast cancer. That wasn’t true either. I learned the vast majority of women who get breast cancer are in menopause and have put on extra weight. I would keep that in mind for the future. I didn’t know that if women delay having their first child until after 30, they are at greater risk of breast cancer. I learned that women are at heightened risk of getting breast cancer in the five years after giving birth and that risk lasts up to twenty years after giving birth. It has something to do with the impact of hormonal surges. Why hadn’t I heard this before? Why don’t more women know this? Shouldn’t women get mammograms regularly after giving birth, especially in the first five years and definitely if they are over 30 when they first become a mother? Why do most doctors still recommend women wait to get their first mammogram at 40? Obviously, getting a mammogram if you are breastfeeding wouldn’t work, but after breastfeeding would. Those at the greatest risk for breast cancer, women in menopause, have regular mammograms. Why shouldn’t women under 40 with young children have regular mammograms, too?
Despite the pain and discomfort, I am grateful for my frequent mammograms and ultrasounds. They keep me safe and I’ll trade pain for safety any day. I just wish more mothers knew they are at heightened risk of breast cancer after they have children. I’m not a doctor and I have no authority to dispense medical advice, but common sense tells me mothers shouldn’t wait until they are 40 to have a mammogram.