My First Screenings

Since the day I got my drivers license, I’ve always looked forward to my 25th birthday.  Sure, 18 was a pretty big deal because I could vote or, if I did wrong, be thrown into prison.  And 21 was a big feat, for obvious reasons.  But at 25 society would finally initiate me into the adult community.  On March 21, 2012, I could rent a car, which is the final rite of passage in this country.

Then I tested positive for the BRCA-1 mutation.  Suddenly my 25th birthday meant so much more, because I would need to begin my cancer screening and become more of an adult than any of my healthy Hertz-renting friends and family.  At 25 years old, doctors recommend BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 women receive regular mammograms and MRIs.  We’re supposed to alternate the mammogram and MRI every six months until we catch cancer early, decide on preventative surgery or just continue screening and pray to be among the lucky few in the BRCA community who squeak by in life cancer-free.

To set things into perspective, the American Cancer Society recommends the average woman begin getting annual mammograms at age 40.  I would have already had 15 mammograms and 15 MRIs by that point.  Heck, I could probably give myself a perfectly good mammogram blindfolded by 40 years old.  I’d be a pro.

But I’m not willing to take any more risks – my risk is high enough.  I don’t want to screen and screen, waiting to pull out the big guns until cancer rears its ugly head.  I can’t imagine anything more terrifying than a cancer diagnosis, even if it’s a “good” one with a hopeful prognosis.  I’d rather bypass all the extra doctor appointments, potential false negatives and biopsies, and all the extra medical bills.

Anyway, all of this seems so burdensome and scary enough on its own, I don’t even want to think about what it might be like with children on my plate.  If I’m blessed to be a mother one day, I don’t want to  worry about murky test results, biopsies and the threat of cancer always lurking, threating to take me away from my babies.  When I bring new life into this world, I want to completely immerse myself in the experience and not constantly worry about my time with my children being cut too short.

So when I decided to have a mastectomy and met with my breast surgeon, Dr. Shawna Willey, she sent in orders for me to have a mammogram and MRI.  Dr. Willey wanted me to have these screenings done whether I wanted a mastectomy or not, but ideally they needed to be done about six months prior to surgery.   Since I’m planning to have my mastectomy in January, six months out meant July!

The mammogram would be my first and only, as I’ll never need one again after my surgery.   I was excited for the experience, so I could relate with other women, but nervous for doctors to take a peek inside my breasts.  Up until July, physicians had only performed manual breast exams during regular check-up appointments.  No one had ever looked inside to see what my breasts could reveal.  I was really scared that I would be opening a can of worms with these screenings, especially with the very clear and detailed MRI imaging.

On Thursday, July 8th, I arrived to Georgetown University Hospital in the wee hours of the morning for my 7am MRI.  I had friends with me, holding my hand and documenting the entire experience.  I was also the first appointment of the day, so no one else but myself and my crew were in the waiting room.  Then a petite woman peeped through the sliding doors and called my name.  It’s show time.

Here's an image of my body from my first MRI! You can even see my lung (the black mass behind my breast) and my rib cage. Pretty wild!
Here's an image of my body from my first MRI! You can even see my lung (the black mass behind my breast) and my rib cage. Pretty wild!

Here's an image of my body from my first MRI! You can even see my lung (the black mass behind my breast) and my rib cage. Pretty wild!

After I changed, the technician quickly injected an IV into my right arm – she did it faster than anyone else before!  This was a really good thing, because I’m not fond of needles.  Then she walked me over the the machine, gave me some headsets with NPR Morning Edition playing faintly through the headphones, and slid me in.  The imaging lasted about 20 minutes, and it was very loud!  So much for National Public Radio.  Since the appointment was so early in the morning, I was pretty exhausted, and the loud hum of the machine lulled me to sleep.

Then it was over!  The technician pulled me out of the machine and gave me a big bear hug.  Out of curiosity, I asked if I could see some of the pictures, so she led me to the back room and clicked through the album, revealing my lungs, ribs, stomach, heart, and, of course, my glowing breasts on the computer screen.  How surreal to see all my body parts and to realize just how foreign of an object my body really is to me.  But there I was, pieces of me I’d never seen before, glowing on the computer screen.

This is an image from my mammogram. The white shows where my breast tissue is dense, which appears to be all over! To me, my breast looks like the Northern Lights or a reflections at the bottom of a pool on a happy summer day.

The very next day I arrived to Georgetown University Hospital again for my mammogram.  This appointment was a little later in the morning, so I showed up around 8am to fill out even more paperwork.  When the technician came for me, I immediately recognized her  young, smiling face.  And this woman remembered me from when I used to volunteer at Georgetown’s breast health center, where I had come this July morning for my screening.  It was great to see a familiar face, but I know she was surprised to see mine as her patient.

My friend lead me into the room with the mammography equipment.  She positioned my breasts three different ways, snapping quick pictures while my breasts were squeezed in each position.  I’ve heard women gripe and gripe about mammograms since I was a little girl, so I was expecting the worst.  Sure, it didn’t feel great to have my tender breast tissue pressed tightly between the cold  equipment.  It wasn’t comfortable but nor was it excruciating.  And, even if it did phase me, the entire procedure was done before I knew it, lasting just a few short minutes.  Then that was that!

My first mammogram!
My first mammogram!

My first mammogram!

My first mammogram!

I returned to the waiting room afterwards and fidgeted in my seat while the radiologist read over the mammography images.  Out of no where, the doctor suddenly appeared, and dictated my results.  I had trouble understanding the young doctor, her accent was very thick, but she was smiling very big.  So it couldn’t be too bad!  Sure enough, the doctor handed me a sheet of paper with the box checked off for “normal”.  Phew!

A few weeks later, I received my MRI report in the mail.  I anxiously peeled open the envelope and ripped out the letter.  There were a lot of big words like “breast parenchyma” and “fibroglandular stroma”, but then I finally got to the English.  It read: “MRI findings…demonstrate no abnormal enhancement in either breast to suggest malignancy.”

Praise Jesus!  All this worry, and they’re still healthy.  The doctors won’t need to remove cancer with my breasts.  So long as breast cells remain the same over the next few months, I will be able to say that I actually defied my destiny and previved, not survived, breast cancer.  I can rest easy at night knowing that I did everything in my power to do the most with knowledge given to me by my grandmother.

Though she battled breast cancer and died from ovarian cancer, I don’t have to do the same.  Sorry BRCA, something else will need to take me out of this world, because it won’t be the same cancer that haunted my grandmother and never let her go.  She went through with genetic testing so that we may be set free.  Now I’m honoring that last selfless act and all of her sacrifice by releasing myself from the shackles of hereditary breast cancer.  I can’t wait for that freedom and all the courage that will come with it.  Is it January already??

3 Responses to “My First Screenings”

  1. September 2, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    I didn’t learn my BRCA status until I was 30, so I only got to experience the joy of mammography twice and the bass-heavy thump of the MRI once. My first MRI came back suspicious and that was enough for me to confirm what I already knew–that was my first and last MRI. Glad to hear you didn’t have any problems this go around… it’s a temporary relief while you wait for the big day.

    Cheers, Steph

  2. September 2, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    I also had the dubious joy of my first mammogram just a couple weeks ago – and I agree with you, though it wasn’t pleasant, it wasn’t too bad either.

    I’m glad to hear you got “normal” news, though a bit surprised that they told you so quickly! I had to wait a couple of weeks to get my results in the mail.

  3. October 22, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    Your journey is inspiring, challenging, and reminds all of us just how precious the gift of *LIFE* really is and how at the end of the day, our bodies (healthy or not) really are just temporary suits.

    Your story does not just apply to cancer fighters, but to all of us facing some sort of huge, life-altering decision or event.

    I pray the LORD uses this experience to draw You near to Himself, who while on earth, experienced constant trial and suffering. He therefore comforts us with the ability to directly relate to our doubts, fears, and pains: both physical and spiritual.

    In Psalm 119 verse 67 says: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Your word.”

    Some people aimlessly go through life with relatively little challenge or worse, have their trials of faith and personal battles go to waste. GOD uses these times to court us, to draw us nearer to His WORD, drive us to prayer, and to His Son.

    It is in our *weaknesses*, that His grace is made perfect — and it is by His grace, we come out of trials all the stronger.

    I pray Scripture will be both a source of comfort, realization, guidance, and wisdom as it has been for me — in both dark times and bright.

    In closing, here are some encouraging excerpts from from 2 Corinthians 4:

    “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not in despair. Persecuted, but not abandoned. Struck down, but not destroyed.”

    “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body…so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.”

    “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”

    “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

    May *CHRIST* be with you every step of the way, always!

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