Last fall, I rode with a breast cancer survivor and farmer friend, Cara Myers, as she drove a grain cart during corn harvest. We did an AgweekTV story about her discovery of breast cancer the prior fall. I sat in the buddy seat in her tractor and listened about her past year of treatment and then being in remission. Her cancer was found early and treated quickly.
I promised Cara on our tractor ride I would start regular mammograms with my 40th birthday approaching. I went home and scheduled it at my rural health clinic for this past winter. I had my physical in January, the month of my birthday, and then the mammogram truck that travels to rural clinics in our area was rescheduled because of a blizzard or two. The next time I could make it work was May 9.
I told my mammogram tech I was going to write a column on my experience and she offered to take my picture as we left the truck. I posted in social media and assumed in a few days I would get a call back that all was clear and I could come back next year. I had a baseline mammogram when I was 37 years old and that is what happened. But this time the call back was different.
I needed a follow-up mammogram and ultrasound appointment in Bismarck, 100 miles away from our rural home. The soonest appointment was more than two weeks later, the first day of the North Dakota state high school track and field meet I wanted to attend in Bismarck. I took the day off from work and decided to make a day of it.
The mammogram led to more diagnostic testing which led to a doctor coming to speak to me and then scheduling a biopsy for the following week. The wait continued. I had two breast biopsies. I’ll spare the details for this column but the procedure was far more invasive than I had anticipated. Thankfully, the ultrasound tech, nurse and doctor were all wonderful conversationalists and the doctor knew my husband.
Then there was another mammogram. And then another ultrasound.
As I awaited more results in an exam room, I texted my husband who was in the waiting room that I was mentally preparing myself for breast cancer. The doctor came back in to tell me in detail about what he saw, next steps and that he would call me within the next two or three days with results. He was confident the masses were benign but pathology would confirm it. The wait continued.
The doctor called the next day, only 26 hours after I had last seen him. My masses are benign fibroadenomas. However, atypical lobular hyperplasia (ALH) cells were found in my tissue and that alone puts me into the high-risk category for breast cancer, four to five times higher than women without the abnormality. Without other risk factors in my family history or health, my risk for getting breast cancer is now 42.9%.
Today, I don’t have breast cancer. I cannot explain my relief and praise for modern medicine.
I will be monitored and checked every six months rotating with a breast MRI and 3-D mammogram. I texted on our family group message the results and next steps. Later, I picked up our son from a soybean field he was planting. He got in my vehicle and asked me about the results. I shared my feelings that even though I don’t have breast cancer, I am the high-risk marker we previously didn’t have in our family. I felt guilty for being a carrier of high-risk breast cancer cells. From now on, I am the factor listed when my daughters, niece, or sister share when they are asked about their health history or risk factors at a preventive screening appointment. What our son said next will stay with me forever.
He said, “Mom, that is a shame. And you don’t have any place in your life for shame.” I have hung onto his words for over a week now and will continue to repeat them. None of us have room for shame in our lives. Let go of shame and live your life with gratefulness.
I am 40 years old and I am at a high risk for breast cancer. I am grateful for friends and family who encourage, rally and pray for modern medicine, for health care providers who screen, test, monitor and treat patients and for researchers, scientists and companies always working to find new treatments and cures for cancer.
The sole purpose of this column today is for you to take care of yourself, no matter who you are or where you live. Do not wait. Do not put off your preventive care screenings.
We have access to modern medicine. Let’s be grateful to utilize it.