In a world filled with pink ribbons reminding us about breast cancer awareness, people still forget that it is a real disease, taking the lives of real people.
Mary, who asked to be referred to only by her nickname, describes herself as a generally healthy person. She said she had no concerns when she showed up for her appointment to get what was to be her second annual mammogram last month. When she got a call from the Womack Army Medical Center Radiology Clinic the day after her mammogram, Mary said that fear struck her heart because she knew that immediate feedback was not a good sign.
Mammography was able to book her an appointment that same day to get her second mammogram done.
A doctor met with her immediately after her second mammogram to discuss her results and outline what the next steps would be.
“It was an extremely stressful time and everything moved so fast,” she said. “I’d hardly had time to process the fact that I needed a second mammogram before I was in there getting one and then talking with a doctor about my results.”
In meeting with the doctor to go over why they had brought her back in for additional images, Mary learned that she had microcalcifications in her right breast. Essentially, she had several calcium deposits, each about the size of a grain of salt, that she couldn’t even feel and wouldn’t have known were there had it not been for getting her annual mammogram.
“I was honestly hoping that I’d just moved or breathed when I wasn’t supposed to and that’s why they needed more images,” she said. “When the second set of images confirmed that I had more microcalcifications than I’d had the year before, I knew that I wasn’t going to like what the doctor told me next.”
What was next was a biopsy of the microcalcifications to determine whether the breast tissue was cancerous. Mary said that while she was scared, she was still amazed by the empathy and professionalism of all the staff she encountered in the Mammography Clinic.
“I was blown away,” she recalled. “Straight after the second set of images and learning I was going to need a biopsy, they were scheduling an appointment for me. When they asked me if I could come in the next day, I was amazed. I appreciated that they realized that I was scared and just wanted answers. They really worked as quickly as possible to help lessen the time I would spend waiting and not knowing.”
When Mary went for her biopsy, she said she was once again struck by the compassion of the staff and the investment in equipment at Womack to make her surgery as comfortable as possible. She said that she was surprised that the clinic had a table specially designed just for breast biopsies.
“The table we have is actually the only one in North Carolina and it’s specifically designed to be able to perform a breast biopsy in 3-D,” said LaShon James, mammography supervisor, WAMC. “In a 2-D image, it can be hard to tell how close the microcalcifications are to a vessel. In 3-D, you’re able to more easily see where everything is and avoid hitting a vessel. Having this technology really helps prevent complications during surgery.”
During the biopsy, a patient lays face-down on an ergonomic table with the breast being biopsied going through a hole specially designed to provide as much comfort as possible for the patient during the procedure. The table rises up so the surgeon is seated below the patient while performing the biopsy.
“The circle in the table we had before was metal,” said James. “We got a lot of complaints and knew we needed to come up with a better option. The circle in the table we have now is surrounded by flexible rubber. This table also has a step behind it, so we’re able to get up to the same level as the patient to make sure they’re okay and provide comfort during the procedure.”
Mary said that having someone stand beside her and talk to her during the procedure really helped calm her down and distract her from what was going on.
“It really wasn’t as bad as I was expecting,” said Mary. “Even though they were really good about explaining what was going to happen beforehand, it’s difficult to anticipate what it’s really going to be like. It honestly was more comfortable than I expected. They numbed the area, so I didn’t feel much at all and it was over super quick.”
After the procedure, Mary had to endure what she described as some of the most difficult days of her life.
“Like everyone else, I’ve known and loved people who have battled breast cancer,” she said. “I’ve lost friends and seen some make it through. I knew I couldn’t control what the results were going to be, but I was anxious to just find out so I could stop going over a bunch of ‘what if’ scenarios in my head and just focus on what is.”
Mary called her primary care clinic after the procedure to schedule her appointment for later that next week to find out her biopsy results. The nurse who called her back said that they would call to set-up an appointment as soon as they saw the results come through. Mary said that when she saw the clinic number show up on her phone a few days later, she was scared to answer.
“I was in a meeting and debated letting it go to voicemail,” she said. “Instead, I grabbed my phone and excused myself from the room. It was the same nurse I’d spoken with earlier. She said that my doctor told her that it was okay to just give me the results over the phone and that the results were benign.
“I sat on the ground and cried. I cried for me, I cried for my Family and I cried for everyone who has gone through that same situation and I cried for those who got bad news instead of the good news I received when they got that same call,” said Mary. “Never again will I be that girl who blows off check-ups because I feel okay. This was a reality check for me and a reminder that even though I don’t have a Family history of breast cancer, I still need to take my appointments seriously and follow through on what I’m supposed to do.”
(Editor’s note: The author of this article would like to take the opportunity to remember Michelle Butzgy, a former colleague who used to work for the Paraglide. She passed away after a years-long battle with breast cancer earlier this year. The light she brought into this world will always be missed. Rest in peace.)