Last Friday I was scheduled for a routine mammogram. I had my first when I turned 40 a few years ago. That time, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had heard the procedure was painful, embarrassing, uncomfortable and unnecessary. I had a lengthy discussion with my physician about starting routine mammograms at 40. She didn’t feel it was necessary, given new research and our own health systems guidelines being that routine mammograms start at 50. But I didn’t care. I had worked in cancer for too long; seen too many young women with aggressive breast cancer and had a distant family history of breast cancer. I wanted the test—at least as a baseline. We could decide how to proceed with subsequent screening mammograms after I got the first one under my belt. I flew through that first mammogram with flying colors. No problems, no discomfort. I wondered what all the fuss was about!
Flash forward two years. I decided to have another routine screening. I had no signs or symptoms. I didn’t think anything was wrong, but I wanted to know for sure. I arrived at the center for my test and promptly fell apart on the inside. I don’t know what the trigger was; maybe sitting in a waiting room with 12 other women, knowing that likely one of us would be called back for further imaging for “something suspicious.” Would it be me?
The tech instructed me to change into the requisite gowns and put my clothes in a locker. She said many things—I don’t remember half of them because I was a nervous wreck. Am I supposed to take off my pants or just my shirt and bra? Did I put deodorant on? When was my last period? Will I be ok? I started texting random friends…”I’m nervous…I’m scared…what’s wrong with me?”
I needed to pull myself together. This was easier said than done. I took a look in the mirror and some deep breaths. I could do this. Regardless of the results, I had insurance, support, access to excellent medical care. I would be ok.
The tech called me back. My nervousness turned to giddy laughter. I tried desperately to use my sense of humor to calm myself down. I tried to engage the tech—did she notice I was a mess? And then, we got started.
This time the exam was uncomfortable, but not painful. I was a little embarrassed when the tech said, “can you hold that breast up while I position this one?” But then, it was over. I saw one of the images and said to myself, “well there is your boob.” I didn’t know if it showed anything and was told my results would be available via our online patient portal.
Two hours later, I got the standard response, “your test was negative.” Of course, I was relieved. Why had I been so worried? And the answer to that is, because I’m human. Worry, nervousness, anxiety—it’s all par for the course when dealing with uncertainty and something that could change your life. That is also what makes us more resilient-and gives us the skills to bounce back when faced with adversity.
The bottom line is, anxiety comes up before medical tests, but it shouldn’t keep you from getting those that have been prescribed by your physician. Schedule the test, ask a friend to go with you, plan to keep your mind focused on something else while waiting—but go. Anxiety will pass, but a new cancer diagnosis will not.