Hey y’al! Between the craziness of last week and being out of town this past weekend, I’ve been bit behind on blog posts. But I’m back today with an important post that’s very personal. First of all, to ease your mind, I do NOT have breast cancer. However, I did have a mammogram this past month, even though I’m only 33. I hope that you continue reading this post because I’m sharing my story on what it’s like to get a mammogram in your 30’s, along with the importance of being proactive about your breast health.
(Photo by Emily Gardiner Photo)
Why I Had a Mammogram at 33
Women typically don’t start getting mammograms to screen for breast cancer until age 40. But the American Cancer Society recommends that women at high risk for breast cancer start mammograms as early as age 30. I am considered at increased risk for breast cancer because of a strong family history. One of my relatives had breast cancer before age 40. Initially, my doctor had recommended that I start mammograms at 35. However, when I went in for my annual exam in September, she recalculated my lifetime risk for breast cancer due to some changes in health history over the past year. When she discovered that it was greater than 20%, she recommended that I start getting annual mammograms now, along with a breast MRI. (Note that average lifetime risk for breast cancer is around 12%.)
I’m going to be very transparent with y’all right here. When my doctor started talking about my lifetime risk for breast cancer and the potential need for me to start screening now, I literally almost passed out. I started to feel very lightheaded, and broke out in a cold sweat. I told my doctor I was feeling very queasy, and I laid all the way back on the exam table. She was very sweet and went and got me a cup of water and some peanut butter crackers. Even though I fully expected to start breast cancer screening younger than the typical age of 40, I had no idea prior to my annual check-up that I would need to start now. I hadn’t felt any lumps or noticed any changes in my breasts, so I thought I would be good for another two years.
Getting the Screening Mammogram
So a couple weeks after my annual gynecologist appointment, I got a screening mammogram. Prior to going, I had read via the American Cancer Society that getting called back for additional tests after a screening mammogram is common and that it does not mean you have cancer. The mammography tech even told the day I had the screening mammogram that there was probably about an 80% chance that I would have to have additional imaging. She told me not to be alarmed since it was my first mammogram. When you have your first mammogram, there is no baseline image to use as a comparison. Therefore, the radiologist compares one breast to the other.
However, I was still alarmed when my doctor called me two days after the screening mammogram to tell me they needed additional pictures of a spot on my left breast. Even though I had mentally prepared myself for the strong possibility of needing additional imaging, I was still hopeful that maybe I wouldn’t. Any of my close friends know that I don’t like waiting and uncertainty, so I was just ready to get all this over with. My doctor even told me it wasn’t uncommon to get called back for additional images, but I was still scared.
The next step in this process was a diagnostic mammogram on my left breast. Even using the term “diagnostic mammogram” made me uneasy. When I scheduled the diagnostic mammogram, they told me I would check in at the Cancer Hospital. This definitely added to my anxiety. The rational part of my brain knew that the chances of me having breast cancer were slim to none. I’m only 33 and I hadn’t felt a lump or noticed any unusual changes in my breast. My doctor, the imaging center, and the American Cancer Society website had all stated that getting called back after a screening mammogram did not mean I had cancer. Yet, the anxious part of my brain couldn’t shake the thought of “maybe I do have breast cancer.” Imagining worst case scenarios is one way that my clinical anxiety manifests itself. Although breast cancer at my age is uncommon, it’s not unheard of.
The Diagnostic Mammogram
Fortunately, I was able to get my diagnostic mammogram the same day as the breast MRI I had already scheduled before I even knew I would need additional mammography images. After my MRI was finished, I had to wait a few hours for my mammogram. The diagnostic mammogram was a different experience from the screening mammogram. When I had the screening mammogram, there was no one else in the waiting room. I changed into a gown in a room directly adjacent to the mammography equipment. Then I had the mammogram, and was quickly on my way.
In contrast, when I had the diagnostic mammogram, they called me back from the main waiting room into an inner waiting area. After changing into a gown in a dressing room, I had to sit in the waiting area with other women also wearing hospital gowns. The next youngest person in the room was probably at least 25 years older than me. It definitely felt really weird! When it was my turn, the mammography tech took me back to get my imaging done. This only took a few minutes, but then I went back into the inner waiting area (with women nearly twice my age) while the radiologist read my images. Once the radiologist was ready to give me my results, the mammography tech came and led me to a small room with a round table and chairs.
The moments between when I sat down in that little room and when the radiologist walked in were some of the longest and most nerve-wracking moments of my life. My heart rate was definitely elevated like crazy. Then the radiologist came into the room. One of the first things out of her mouth was “everything looks fine.” I’m not sure I’ve ever been more relieved to hear those three words. She then explained how the spot of interest from the screening mammogram no longer looked questionable once examined with more advanced imaging. We reviewed a plan of action to continue with bilateral diagnostic mammogram annually. I was released and breathed a huge sigh of relief!
After I got my clear mammogram results, I honestly wasn’t too concerned with the MRI results. However, I learned a couple days ago that my MRI was clear as well! Another sigh of relief there!
(The day of my MRI and diagnostic mammogram, I wore this Clemson Tigers for the Cure shirt to the hospital. Proceeds from this shirt went to Dabo’s All In Foundation, which helps provide mammograms to women who don’t have insurance. Yet one more reason I love Clemson and Dabo Swinney!)
What I Learned
It’s honestly really hard for me to adequately put into words the emotions I felt as I went through the process of breast imaging and waiting on results over the past several weeks. But I’m going to attempt as best I can to share a few things that I learned through all this:
1. My health is a gift!
Going through all these tests and the accompanying anxiety and uncertainty has given me a newfound thankfulness for my health. It truly is a gift from the Lord, because nothing this side of eternity is guaranteed.
2. A new admiration for women who have battled breast cancer.
The anxiety I experienced while going through breast cancer screening also gave me a renewed admiration for women who have had breast cancer. I felt so relieved and thankful that I didn’t have to return to the hospital for additional tests and treatment, which put me in awe of the courage of women who have undergone treatment for breast cancer.
3. A new empathy for women who have actually felt lumps in their breast.
So I was enough of a nervous wreck about getting a mammogram and MRI even though I never felt a lump in my breast. I got these screenings early because of family history of cancer. Based on how worried I was to get these tests done as an extra vigilant screening measure, I can’t even begin to imagine how scared I would have been if I had actually felt a breast lump that I needed to get checked out. I know people who have had to have a biopsy and even lumpectomy in order to determine that a concerning spot in their breast was benign. Getting a clear bill of health after my diagnostic mammogram was such a huge relief to me. As a result, I have a newfound empathy for women who have to go through additional procedures before they can get the all-clear. And of course,
4. God equips each of us for our unique struggles.
While going through all of this and facing the reality that young women are not immune from breast cancer, I have gained a new perspective on the struggles that I do have in my life. To be honest, it’s really hard for me at times to still be single in my early 30’s. I thought that I would be married and have kids by now. I never thought that I would get imaging to make sure I didn’t have breast cancer before I got imaging to see a little human growing inside of me.
On the other hand, I know of people who had cancer before they turned 30. I actually have one friend who has beat cancer twice, and she’s not even 30 yet! When wrestling with all the scary “what-ifs” that crossed my mind when I was worried I might be the rare woman who gets breast cancer in her 30’s, it really hit me that I would rather be single in my early 30’s than be battling breast cancer. I couldn’t help but think about all the complications and side effects that would come with chemotherapy for breast cancer, especially hair loss. I don’t always enjoy being single, but I am thankful to have a full head of long hair. Also, I may not be a mom, but I’m grateful I don’t have to worry about the fertility issues that young women undergoing cancer treatment face.
While it’s true that we don’t get to choose our trials, this whole episode has been a sweet reminder of God’s sovereignty. We aren’t guaranteed an easy life, but God knows which struggles we are best equipped to handle with His help that will bring Him the most glory!
Why Am I Sharing All This?
Health is a very personal topic, so much that there are laws protecting patients’ private health information. Yet, I’m freely sharing all about my breast health on the Internet because I hope I can help and encourage someone else.
I want women who are experiencing anxiety about their first mammogram to know they aren’t alone. It’s okay to let yourself be scared if you get called back for additional imaging after a screening mammogram. But remember that getting called back does not mean you have cancer, and my story is now proof of that. I also want to put you at ease if you’re worried about a mammogram being physically painful. Although it’s not comfortable or enjoyable, it doesn’t hurt anymore than a pelvic exam does. And this is coming from someone with a relatively low pain tolerance!
I also want to share a couple practical tips for anyone preparing for their first mammogram. Don’t wear deodorant on that day because it can show up as spots on the x-rays. It’s also easier if you wear a skirt or pants instead of a dress. That way you only have to undress from the waist up.
Take Charge of Your Health
Lastly, I want to encourage y’all to get your annual preventative exams at the gynecologist. There’s often a misconception among young women that they don’t need to go if they aren’t sexually active. This is absolutely not true at all. One of the major benefits of going is that your doctor can examine you for any unusual lumps each year, as well as talk to you about your personal risk for breast cancer. You and your doctor can make decisions together on on the best appropriate course for breast cancer screening based on recommended guidelines and your personal risk factors. These conversations can be scary and intimidating, but it’s better to talk about your cancer risk and be proactive about prevention and early detection.
I’m also so thankful to have a doctor who takes my increased breast cancer risk seriously and doesn’t shrug it off simply because I’m young. As I mentioned earlier, young women still get breast cancer even though it’s not common. In fact, one of my local blogger friends, Anna from My Cancer Chic, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27. Go check out her blog and follow her on Instagram. She will inspire you to overcome any type of adversity you are facing with style and a smile. Anna’s story also inspired me to listen to my doctor’s recommendation and not hesitate with getting the recommended breast cancer screening done.
To learn more about a great organization that encourages women to be proactive about their breast health, check out this post from last week.
(Photo by Emily Gardiner Photo. This scarf was Lilly Pulitzer’s breast cancer awareness print eight years ago, which benefited the American Cancer Society.)
I realize this post is very long-winded and personal, but I really wanted to share a bit of my story and experience in case someone out there would benefit. If you have any questions about getting a mammogram and managing your breast cancer risk, feel free to reach out to me. But please note I am not a substitute for your doctor!
Also, shoutout to my best friend for driving me to the hospital for my MRI bright and early that morning and then staying with me all day. Shout-out to my mom for coming up for my diagnostic mammogram and being with me when I got my results!
Thanks for reading y’all!