- Women's Health
When mammograms are wrong
Lumps are not there purely for decoration
June, and for some reason unbeknownst to me I felt the side of my right breast closest to my armpit. I really don't know what made me touch my breast. It's not something I do often and I guess I've always been quite slack about doing breast checks on myself. When you're in your early forties, it's not something you consider doing. It's not like you wake up and say to yourself, "I think I'll feel my breast today." Anyway, on this particular morning, I felt a lump the size of a grape. I could squeeze it between my fingers. I decided to wait a week or two to see if it just disappeared by itself. It didn't. In fact, because I was aware of the lump and had taken to touching it and squeezing it at any opportunity, it had begun to get a little painful. Still, I wasn't too concerned but went to see my GP anyway. He explained that I just had a breast infection and gave me a course of antibiotics.
July, antibiotics finished, lump still there. I continued to monitor it by touching it once a week to see if it was still there.
November, my son fell through a window at school and while visiting the nurse at the GP to get my son's stitches taken out from the bad cut in his arm, I happened to mention the lump in my breast. The nurse donned a set of latex gloves and felt my breast. "Hmm," she said, "Doesn't feel good. Have you had the doctor check it out yet?" I explained that the doctor had said it was just a breast infection and had given me antibiotics. "When it didn't go away after the antibiotics, what did you do about it?" she asked impatiently. My response was to shrug indifferently. "I suggest you set up an appointment with the woman doctor in the practice. Immediately." she added firmly.
End of November, and I met with the woman doctor. She felt the lump in my breast and then did what the other GP hadn't done. Asked about whether or not I had a family history of breast cancer. "My maternal grandmother had breast cancer and had a mastectomy in her right breast," I answered, beginning to feel a bit nervous about my lump. The lady doctor looked at me intently and suggested that we set up an immediate mammogram and ultrasound at the nearby hospital where they had a breast clinic.
Beginning of December, living in a foreign country with no family to go with me as support, and my pride too full to ask a friend for help, I made my way to the breast clinic for a mammogram. It was a shock when the mammogram revealed nothing! Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. The technician was surprised as they could manually feel the lump. The ultrasound showed slightly thickened tissue in the area of the lump, but nothing alarming. The breast specialist then saw me and was confused by the results of the mammogram, as he could feel the lump. "Strange, very strange," he murmured as he squeezed my nipple and a strange looking fluid came out. "Ah, this is good news," he nodded his head with a smile on his face, "At least we know you definitely don't have cancer. Duct ecstacia. You have a blocked duct. Something left over from breast feeding. It won't go away by itself, we have to perform a ductectomy and remove the duct. Very simple procedure, you come into hospital first thing in the morning, and go in for a little surgery under general anaethetic and you go home a couple of hours later." I nearly burst into tears with relief. After my appointment with the lady doctor at the GP's practice, I'd been imagining all kinds of worst case scenarios.
10th December, up bright and early for a routine procedure. No anxiety or trepidations, after all, the doctor had said that it was quite common in women who had breastfed their babies.
20th December, the wound appears to be quite a bit bigger than what they said it would be and does not appear to be healing.
24th December, the day before Christmas and I head to the breast clinic for them to check the dressings and wound from my op and give me the results from the pathology done on the blocked duct they removed. I wait and wait, but nobody seems to be coming into the consulting room I've been sitting in for 45 minutes already. Flipping through magazines, I wonder what's taking them so long and I hear the breast nurse say to the doctor outside the consulting room, "Poor girl, how are we going to tell her? She's still so young." I shake my head in sorrow thinking about some poor girl who's about to get some bad news. About ten minutes later, the breast specialist arrives with the breast nurse. He sits down and puts a box of tissues in front of me. I stare down at the box of tissues and look quizzically at the nurse for some kind of explanation. She slowly shakes her head from side to side and pats me on my shoulder. "I'm afraid I have some bad news. When we opened your breast to remove the lump we found the inside was all tumour and we couldn't get clear margins. The pathology shows that you have two kinds of cancer. I'm afraid that there is only one solution to this problem. We have to tackle it aggressively and remove your breast. You need to have a full mastectomy. I realise that you are still so young..."
Increduously I stare at the specialist, and then the relief of what he's just said dawns on me. "Oh thank God," I laugh, "You've got the wrong person, cause I'm not young. I'm very, very old."
"We don't make mistakes like that," said the doctor solemnly, "43 is actually considered young for this kind of cancer. We've managed to schedule a date for the mastectomy, 19th January. The breast nurse will fill you in on all the arrangements. Merry Christmas." My jaw dropped open in shock as the doctor dropped his bombshell and hastily left the room. He didn't have much of a bedside manner and obviously tried to avoid being there when the woman fell apart after receiving the news. The breast nurse tried to comfort me as I started to sob. Just me and my kids, no family, alone. The day before Christmas. My breasts had always been the one good thing about my body, the one body part I was most proud of.
The 8 and 3/4 hour operation was horrible but worth it. I elected to have a tram flap reconstruction done at the same time. That means that they cut a section of tummy muscle and flip it upward to fill your empty breast skin, after they have removed all your breast tissue. I had adverse reactions to the morphine, MRSA set in and I ended up having four operations on my breast and tummy scar that year. The good news is that they got out all the cancer. I didn't need chemo or radiation treatment. However, I have to say that I am very concerned that both the mammogram and ultrasound didn't pick up anything untoward. I have to ask myself, why such sophisticated detection methods failed to pick up the cancer. I can't be the only one. There have to be other women out there who have had mammograms and the cancer wasn't detected. And strangely, my lump that had resulted in me getting my breast checked actually had nothing to do with the cancer. It was just a coincidence. The message I want to give all women out there is, get your breasts checked regularly. Take any lump or anything that is strange about your breasts seriously. Make sure that the mammogram is taken properly and carefully checked. Breast cancer, if left, can be fatal.