October 18, 2011

Why self check breast exams are important

Each month as part of my tips of the day posts I try to remind you to perform a monthly self check breast exam. 

A few years ago I found a lump on my left breast.  Our daughter was barely walking, and I remember how scared I was.  My paternal grandmother had fought a hard battle with breast cancer in her 40s.  She had a reoccurrence of the cancer later in life that settled in her sternum.  After having her sternum removed and fighting long and hard, she was cancer free.  Seeing her sweet heart beat through her skin and muscle exposed from the absence of the sternum was a constant reminder of her fight. I had all of that in my mind as I scheduled the appointment for a mammogram and phoned my older cousin to be with me during the experience. 

As in older cousin, reliable fashion, she told me what to expect and was kind enough to take care of our daughter as I went in for my checkup.  The mammogram wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as everyone makes it out to be, and because I was young (denser breast tissue makes a mammogram harder to read) I also had an ultrasound.  I remember how I was almost in tears as the doctor told me that the lump was not a concern and that I did not have cancer. 

Since that time I’ve continued to perform self checks and have annual visits with my midwife and doctor.  All has been normal until about 3 1/2 weeks ago when I found a lump under my left armpit.  Because that is an area where lymph nodes can become swollen, I monitored it for a couple of weeks to check for signs of change.  Seeing no decrease in size, I phoned my primary care physician to ask what to do.  He checked it, felt it right away, and due to my family history of breast cancer sent me to have it checked via mammogram. 

This morning I went to my appointment.  In contrast to the first time I had a mammogram, I wasn’t nearly as frightened.  The risk of cancer was just as real, but there was something comforting in knowing what to expect from the appointment.  I only started to become anxious when I saw the color coded sheet that I was given when I went for check-in.  Mine was pink, a color so feminine and delicate yet it represented something so potentially damaging.  Pink meant that I was there because I found a lump—uh-oh, maybe I should be worried? 

The screener seemed to treat me with kid gloves as she asked me questions, and I had to wonder if pink was the reason for that.  It was almost maddening to hear her call me “sweetie” and “dear” and “honey”, something that I as a Southerner often say to others meaning no harm or disrespect.  Isn’t it almost irksome how God can use any experience as a time to learn and reflect?  Got the picture God—I’ll try not to use the cutesy names as much.

Just as I left the screening room, starting to feel a bit more anxious and with the thoughts of the pink sheet and kid glove treatment in mind, I happened to see a friend in the lobby.  It was such a nice distraction to visit with her for a few minutes.  It was her first mammogram, and telling her about what to expect calmed me down.  What a God-send she was! 

For the next hour or so, I went through a series of tests and waiting rooms.  Kind people treated me, explained what to expect, and talked to me about the tests they were running.  I waited with other women in gowns in dim lit waiting rooms.  I wondered what there stories were—were they scared?  Had they been through this before?  In the last room, the technician told me that the lump was nothing to worry about and that my scans all came back normal.  They encouraged me to continue to perform monthly self checks and return annually to receive a mammogram.  I let out a sigh of relief.

As I walked through each step of this experience, I’ve had a college friend who had lost her mother to breast cancer on my mind.  Because her aunts also had breast cancer, she was checked for the genetic marker and tested positive.  After a series of surgeries, she had a double mastectomy as a preventative measure.  I remember hearing her talk about the experience and how grateful she was to have options for prevention.  She believed that her life was saved because of testing and the preventative surgery.  I thought of how far we have come in the understanding, prevention, and treatment of breast cancer since my grandmother first had it over 40 years ago.  Back then genetic testing wasn’t an option, mammograms weren’t as readily available, the connection between lifestyle choices and prevalence weren’t understood fully, and research on treatment options was in its infancy.   Now we have so many more choices.  My friend and many more like her are alive today because of those choices.

Prevention is a choice.  I choose to perform monthly checks, annual checks with my doctor, and mammograms because I don’t want to wonder “what if”.  I’m so grateful to live in a time when we have more options and a better understanding of this cancer.  Please choose prevention for yourself and remind those you love to do the same.  I know that lack of insurance can be a challenge for many when referring to preventative care.  If you do not have insurance, I encourage you to phone your local breast center or Department of Health.  In the month of October, many facilities are making mammograms available for free as part of community screening.  If you are interested in learning how to perform a self check, you can view instructions here.

Blessings to you and yours!


  1. HUGE HUGS to you and a sigh of relief here as well :)

  2. Wanted to share my post as well. Thanks for being such a great friend. http://bluefrogcreations.blogspot.com/2011/10/my-first-mammogram.html