Last week I listened to a podcast that reviewed lifestyle approaches for longevity. They touched upon nutrition, stress-reduction behavior, mindset, movement and sleep. They ended by referencing what they believed to be the most important, and most neglected: regular health care screenings. I vigorously nodded my head as I listened.

A routine mammogram may have saved my life.

Rewind to March 2018

My last mammogram had been in December 2016.

It was now 15 months later – March 2018. I was only 48 and not concerned with waiting a little longer for my annual imaging. I had previously gone two years in between mammograms and did not have a family history.

Once scheduled, I didn’t give it a second thought. Quite frankly, I viewed it as just another annual appointment to check off the “self-care” list.

An Unexpected Phone Call

Less than two hours after my mammogram, the phone call came. They found something. In both breasts. The right side was the one that was more concerning. I had to go in for a magnified mammogram and ultrasound.

I told a couple of close friends. They shared their own stories of being called back, trying to allay my fears.

Additional Testing

After the magnified mammograms (an even more close-up version of breast imaging), an ultrasound (a complementary imaging technique that can help identify more areas in denser breasts) and a core needle biopsy (the insertion of a metal needle into the breast to extract tissue samples to be identified as either benign/good or malignant/bad), my diagnosis was medically confirmed.

I did not get too many details – those would come when I saw the Breast Cancer Surgeon and reviewed pathology results.

My first appointment brought additional unwanted information. I thought they would make an excision/lumpectomy (which is much more common) and I would possibly need to have radiation.

That wasn’t to be the plan.

Moving Fast Toward Mastectomy

Due to an unusually large neoplasm (think buckshot or a constellation of dots) covering my entire right breast versus having a lump or lumps, a unilateral (one-sided) mastectomy was considered the recommended approach for my individual circumstance.

There were microscopic invasions of an aggressive cancer growing, as well. Things began to move speedily: chest X-Ray (to ensure it hadn’t spread to my lungs), breast MRI (to confirm there wasn’t anything hidden that the mammogram or ultrasounds didn’t pick up), the scheduled surgery and lymph node testing at the time of my surgery.

The results? It had not yet spread.

Don’t Go Online at 2:00 a.m.

Although I was initially relieved that the reason for my recent health difficulties was identified, I did go to a dark place shortly thereafter.

The “hurry up and wait” period in between diagnosis and additional testing was especially nerve-wracking.

I craved information. Although the broad strokes were given to me, I actively sought out the “detail” recommendations. Since I had more upcoming tests, there were multiple unknowns about what was ahead. This caused stress, anxiety, insomnia and led to my going down online rabbit holes without enough information in the wee small hours of the morning. This would result in adrenaline spikes, making me feel even worse. Don’t do it!

What made me feel better was speaking with other women. I found their stories to be beneficial guides. Even though I knew that every experience was unique, I got a better idea of what to expect. One commonality they all emphasized was how much better I would feel once I had a “plan.” Prior to the development of one, I had fear of the unknown and often felt rushed and scared.

They were right. Portions of my individualized plan were concrete and others more fluid. Just knowing one existed and was team-informed elevated my courage and confidence.

It Took a Village

I feel extremely lucky. I had it worse than some and a lot better than many others. I was surrounded by support: a talented surgeon, oncologist, board-certified oncology naturopath, primary care provider, cancer counselor, plus wonderful family and friends. In addition to my team, many caring strangers held space for me in my time of need. I am forever grateful.

Some of the kindnesses I received along the way included, but were not limited to:

  • The provider who was suspicious of the dramatic increase of calcifications (which appear as white spots or flecks on the imaging) in 15 month’s time, and urged me to get a biopsy as soon as possible
  • The reassuring schedulers who possessed a unique set of magical juggling and problem-solving skills
  • The tech who held a cold compress on my clammy forehead during my biopsy
  • The nurse who got a pediatric needle to make it easier to insert the IV into my small veins
  • The nurse who brought me a blanket and shared that she was a breast cancer survivor and had just finished her five years of medication
  • The assistant who brought in extra padding to cushion my hip bones during the breast MRI
  • The informative and patient person I spoke with during my pre-surgery preparation call
  • The person at registration who wished me well the morning of my surgery
  • The two people who wheeled me to the OR and spoke with encouragement as the anesthesia started kicking in
  • The Post Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) nurse who was so patient and supportive with both me and my family as I slowly came to after surgery
  • The parking attendant who carefully helped me get from the wheelchair to the car when I was discharged

Two and a Half Years Later

Thankfully, things have remained fairly uneventful since my surgery. I will be on a medication for another two and a half more years.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been able to have my routine follow-ups and care completed in a very safe manner. This includes my annual ultrasound and mammogram, in-person appointments with my oncologist and PA and Zoom appointments with my cancer support counselor.

Healing means different things to different people at different stages. Taking time to be still and asking what would most enhance my body, mind and spirit’s healing every morning, afternoon and evening has continually helped me regain a little more control.

Schedule Your Health Screenings

This experience gave me a new appreciation for the importance of annual health care screenings. I am actually writing this after visiting my primary care provider for my Annual Exam. We reviewed the list of my 2020 screenings and were able to check off many of them, even during COVID-19.

Up next? Colonoscopy.

Geri Ann Higgins, owner of Fully Present, is a breast cancer survivor, Certified Holistic Cancer Coach, Certified Health & Wellness Coach, Registered Yoga Teacher, Certified Yoga4Cancer Teacher, Reiki Master, Tarot Consultant and Marketing, Communications and Voicework professional. Learn more at www.FullyPresentWithYou.com, on Facebook, Instagram or on YouTube @fullypresentwithyou. 

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