Editor’s Note: This is the third of three articles where Courtney Vallejo shares about her journey after finding a lump in her breast. Though she’s fine, she wanted to share it with you, here, to raise awareness about the realities of breast cancer and the experience of the doctor’s appointments. The first article is here, and the second article is here. -SR
I brought my husband with me to the appointment that day. I knew he couldn’t come back to the exam room with me, but I needed him close by, in case they didn’t have good news for me.
We were sitting in the waiting room when the nurse came out and started calling names. Apparently they call a bunch of at the same time to start getting prepared for our mammogram. My husband got up to go with me, such a good man, but I told him he couldn’t.He wanted me to ask, just in case, but I let him know there were a bunch of women in there and I’d call him if I needed him. His “I’m not going to look worried, but I look worried” face and tone of voice made me feel loved and cared for, and a bit nervous, all at the same time.
Back in the dressing room, they gave us floral fabric to wear and reminded us to wear it like a cape. It took me a few minutes of trying to find the arm holes when I luckily remembered they said it goes on like a cape. We all sit in the same waiting room area, in our capes, and wait to be called.
I was the youngest by far. No one talks to each other, and there’s a TV and magazines to keep everyone distracted. Besides I couldn’t think of a conversation starter at that moment, and it’s not really the time to talk about the weather or my personal preference about the show on the TV.
Finally they start calling patients to the exam room. I walked in a sterile small room with a massive piece of cream-colored medical equipment on one side of the room. It looked like something out of Grey’s Anatomy except this was real life.
The nurse handed me some kind of form about being eligible for a 3D mammogram. I wasn’t sure what the form was even asking me. Was I eligible? Would my insurance cover this? If I did this, would I end up getting a bill for $3,000 for some procedure I didn’t need?
Finally, the nice lab technician clarified for me, “You’re just signing to consent the procedure. We will bill your insurance and if the bill isn’t paid, we don’t charge you.” Why she couldn’t have said that when she handed me the form was beyond me, but then again maybe she did and I wasn’t listening. I was slightly distracted.
Mammograms are not something someone forgets. I had my first mammogram around my 30th birthday. Yes, that is far earlier than the average woman begins her yearly checkups, but my doctor had advised me to start checking when I was about 10 years younger than than the age when my mother developed breast cancer. I couldn’t remember the exact age but thought it was around 40.
After the initial x-rays, at that mammogram, they called me back to the observation room and did an ultrasound to double check something they thought they saw. Talk about a panic moment, but it was just dense tissue, and they told me I was really too young to be having this procedure and to wait a few years.
Well it had been a few years and now, at 33, my doctor had just found a lump. I was back in the mammogram office. At least this time it didn’t seem as daunting since I knew (or thought I knew) the general process of the appointment. That’s not a process you want to be unfamiliar with, when you’re busy worrying about a lump.
For years, I’ve had people tell me how awful mammograms are, which didn’t necessarily make me want to run right out and try one, but for me, they’re really not that bad. They make you stand perfectly still and use a machine to press against you to get the correct image.
As I’m standing there in this awkward position in a room where no one wants to be, with my lump still intact, the technician says, “Ok, just relax and hold still.” I wanted to giggle… relax, really, with the lump? But I was in too much of a fog to even say anything and just followed her orders. It’s a quick few minutes and they escort you back to the waiting room while the staff reviews the x-ray films.
Sitting in the room, waiting for my name to be called, I started to imagine what they’d say to me when they returned, but I had to stop with the scenarios. Whatever it was, I would deal with when I knew.
They called me back and took me to a different room. They had decided to do an ultrasound.
OK, here we go, something’s wrong, I thought. It was in that moment that I really started to panic. I wished I had asked if my husband could come back with me, because I could have really used him, if only to hold my hand.
The ultrasound was quick and to the point, and the tech left to check the images. I sat in the room trying not to break down and my imagination started again. I decided as soon as she walked in I would ask her to get my husband. I debated walking out and getting him myself, but I was in my floral cape.
A few minutes later she walked in and she looked like she had something serious to tell me. I didn’t even have a chance to ask for my husband when she told me that everything was normal. The doctors just wanted to double check but that they didn’t see anything on the mammogram or the ultrasound.
Where was the lump? I managed to open my mouth and ask, “Then what is the lump?”
“We don’t know,” she answered, “you’ll have to follow up with your doctor.”
And that was it. I wanted to argue with her, “No you figure this out! You don’t understand! The lump is still there, and I’m not leaving until you tell me what this is!”
Instead of an outburst, I followed her back to the changing room and quickly changed so I could get out of there.
I found my husband in the waiting room and blurted out as fast as I could – “It’s nothing.”
He looked so relieved. It wasn’t till we headed out that he asked, “Then what is it?”
I had thought I would be leaving the mammogram with an answer, and while I did find out it wasn’t cancer, I was still left wondering what it was. I knew I needed to make a follow up appointment with my OBGYN to get started with the hormone treatments, but with the holidays coming I just decided to ignore everything. I didn’t have cancer and that was enough for me.
I received a letter awhile later from the medical imaging place I had gone to for my mammogram, just restating that the mammogram was normal, but then it said that because I had dense breast tissue, there was still a 30% chance it was cancer and they recommended further diagnosis from a breast specialist.
WHAT! I thought I didn’t have cancer? What’s with the 30%? And as quickly as they left, the cancer scenarios were back in my head.
It was time for the breast specialist. I mustered up enough courage to call the breast specialist my OBGYN had originally recommended and the number was disconnected, well that wasn’t going to work. I tried calling a different doctor that had been recommended to me by a friend, but the doctor was no longer with the practice, she’d moved to Texas. I was starting to get defeated.
I don’t quite remember how I found the specialist I ended up seeing, but I made the appointment for a few weeks out, for the beginning of January. I prepped myself that I could wait that long and tried not to let my mind wander with worry. A few days before my appointment, the doctor’s office called me to inform me that the doctor was going to need to reschedule. She had been called into an emergency surgery the day of my appointment.
I of course felt awful for the person who was having the emergency surgery, and while I was grateful that I wasn’t having emergency surgery, I was not excited about having to wait longer. And by longer, I mean it was another two to three weeks until the doctor had another opening.
This time I asked to my mother-in-law to come with me to the appointment. I had had time to collect my thoughts and calm down and I really wanted her to be there with me. The doctor was late and I worried even more in the waiting room but once inside she got right down to business.
She wondered why I was coming in, if I had already had the mammogram, but when I mentioned taking Clomid, she got serious and was determined to do the best ultrasound. I’m not quite sure about the Clomid connection, but it was like name dropping to get a better seat at a restaurant, and I took whatever I could get!
She started the ultrasound and warned me that she makes noises she doesn’t realize she’s making while looking at the ultrasound screen, so to just ignore them. I was relieved she told me that because I would have thought every noise meant something awful.
What seemed like a few minutes later she paused and said, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing here. Where was the lump?” I laid there wondering if I was on candid camera or something.
I reached down to show her and it was gone. WHAT… WAIT… It’s here somewhere, it was huge!
And just as quickly as this lump had appeared, it had left. There was nothing there and I was free to start Clomid.
As she left the room I just sat in shock. My mother-in-law was overjoyed and grateful that it was nothing, but I just couldn’t figure out what just happened. Was this a test? Was there really a lump? Did I do all this worrying for nothing? And more importantly, how did I move on from this? These were the moments in our lives that I thought were supposed to shape who we are, and make us into the saints we’re trying to become.
I followed up with my original OBGYN and she was thrilled it was nothing and assumed it was some fibrocyst thing. She said they just come and go. When I explained how the specialist had bumped my appointment back, she said it was probably better, because it had time for the cyst to go away.
And that was that. We moved on.
Writing this now, I can’t believe all of that happened, but I have taken away one very important thought. The human body is a mystery, of which God is ultimately in control of, but we are also stewards of this temple of ours and we have to protect it from the toxins that can hurt us.
Obviously I can’t stay in a bubble all day and I can’t always afford to eat organic, but I do my best to make sure I drink lots of water, get as much rest as I can at night, and find ways to remember not to worry about everything. I’m not good at the “not worrying” part yet, but I’m trying. It’s also made me realize I need to have a will written and make sure that my children are taken care of if, God forbid, the results aren’t as good next time.
I leave you with two questions:
- How do you make sure your children are taken care of, if you won’t be there to take care of them?
- How do you live each day to the fullest in case it’s the last?
Copyright 2014, Courtney Vallejo