In June, after finally making it to my annual OB-GYN well visit (I’ll admit, I had put it off and rescheduled a few times because, hello, these visits are no fun and also hello, we moms tend to put everyone and everything ahead of our own needs), I found myself thrown into the world of breast health.
Really, I should call it World of Breast Health, and tell you all of the ways in which the experience paralleled a trip to the theme park.
- found myself going from wild ride to wild ride, with vague feelings of nausea, anxiety and overhwelm between stops
- spent more money than I wanted on things that didn’t actually come home with me or improve my life at all
- had to sign waiver after waiver, each letting me know that bad things could happen
- dealt — at times! — with people who literally held my life in their hands but seemed quite uninvested in making sure I was well taken care of
(In fairness, I also met some truly wonderful people who knew how scared I was and who made things as easy as they could.)
And this all happened in less than two months. The fastest and slowest two months…maybe since the end days of my two pregnancies.
So, here’s the summary — and a spoiler, because it’s the most important part of the story. I am 100% healthy, and all of the tests show that the lumps that started me on this journey are benign and require no invasive treatments.
But before getting the good news, I:
- Had two lumps discovered my my midwife
- Got a bilateral mammogram
- Got a bilateral ultrasound
- Got a bilateral MRI with contrast dye
- Got two ultrasound-guided biopsies
It started at that annual well visit. My midwife checked my vitals, asked about my home life, performed a pap smear, and then had me lay back so that she could do a breast exam.
I do self-checks each month (errrr, most months) and so I expected to hear that all was well and that I could carry on for another year.
Instead, my midwife told me that she felt two lumps in my right breast that had her concerned, and she recommended that I get a mammogram and ultrasound so that we could figure out what was happening. Even then, I wasn’t particularly nervous. I’d previously had to have a mammogram because of a lump (more here), and for years, doctors have told me that because of my dense breast tissue, I’d likely be in for a lot of extra mammograms and checks.
I scheduled the mammogram (not painful at all, although a little uncomfortable) and ultrasound (exactly like a fetal ultrasound except there’s no little person on the screen — just a little lump!). And again, I figured that I’d be getting a call to signal the all-clear in a few days.
That call, instead, came from my new midwife (long story) who calmly but in a pretty serious tone let me know that the ultrasound not only had not ruled out cancer or another issue — I needed to go in for more tests. So, off to the MRI I went.
The MRI was the least fun of all of the exams, and I hoped that would be the end.
The MRI came back as inconslusive — and because of the irregular shape of the lumps and the blood flow to one of them, it was time for one more diagnostic tool: the biopsy.
The doctor used ultrasound to help guide his needle, to take a good sample (in the right area) and while it was the only exam that required me to take some recovery time, it was also not nearly as scary or painful as I feared. And thankfully — those tests were the final ones in my case. They showed that the lumps (and, in fact, about a dozen additional lumps that the tests uncovered) were benign fibroadenomas — common, non-cancerous tumors that typically don’t grow and don’t spread to other organs.
So, that’s my story. But if you’re here, you probably want to know what to expect in your story. Please remember that I am not a doctor. I am just a girl — I mean, a 38-year-old woman — sharing her experience.
Fibroadenomas of the breast
Fun fact: when I first heard this term, I gave myself the mneomic of “Brad Pitt Nomar Garciaparra” so that I could remember how to pronounce it. Fi (ryhymes with high) – brad (like Pitt) – uh – no – ma (like we used to say Nomar’s name in Boston).
Fibroadenomas are tumors (ick) made up of breast tissue, and they are benign and, depending on your medical provider’s treatment plan, may not need to be removed. In my case, we’re in a watch-and-see stage, which means that I’ll be getting twice-yearly mammograms and ultrasounds to make sure that these suckers don’t grow. After two years of no growth, I get to go back to regularly scheduled visits.
These are, apparently, quite common, especially in women in their 20s and 30s and often, in people who have gone through hormonal changes — including pregnancy (me x 2) and breastfeeding (me x 42 months). There may be a very slightly increase risk of developing beast cancer, but my doctors don’t seem to be concerned about my overall risk.
Mammogram and Ultrasound
Neither of these procedures is invasive. In my case, I always have one with the other, but I also have very dense breast tissue. You should not need to prepare ahead of time (no activity restrictions, no need to fast, etc.) and you won’t be given any injections or IVs.
At worst? You might get a little chilly (you’re topless) and feel a bit of a pinch on the mammogram but all in all? This is no sweat.
With the mammogram, you’ll stand at the machine and put your breast into a little plastic box. The tech will help you adjust your body and then may close the box a bit to make sure that the picture is stable and not shaky.
The ultrasound uses a wand to roll over your skin (you’ll be all lubed and gooped up) to look for lumps and other abnormailities.
(I tried to lighten the mood by asking if it was a boy or a girl. We decided that my lumps were definitely juvenile dudes who didn’t know when to stop grabbing on to a lady’s breasts.)
Let’s just get real real. This one sucked. It wasn’t painful (although I did get an IV and had contrast dye injected into my body which was cold and weird and made me feel as if my insides were turning into ice).
It was just…not fun. My techs did the absolute best they could to make me comfortable. They put earplugs in my ears and let me pick music for my headphones. They put blankets on me. They talked soothingly and reassuringly in my ears for the 45 minutes I was in the machine. And they were very sympathetic when I shocked myself with a full meltdown in the waiting area as I realized what this all meant.
During the MRI, I was put face-down onto a long plastic tray, with each breast essentially hanging down (weird) into plastic cages. With my feet in the machine first, the techs slid me back and then proceeded to do a series of snapshots, without and then with the dye. Each snapshot took between 30 seconds and 10 minutes, and I had to stay very, very still — so I called on every meditation I knew and just tried to hold on until it was over.
This one seemed the scariest but truly was no big deal. (For me. A friend who had to have biopsies of her breasts told me that her entire breast was black and blue for days, and she was much more sensitive to movement and touch than I was. So this is a your mileage may vary kind of thing.
(YMMV? Any chat room veterans reading this?)
The hardest part about the biopsies was the prep and recovery. For 5 days leading up to the tests, I had to avoid aspirin (Tylenol was fine). And after the tests, I had to take 3 days off from exercise and a week off of aspirin, baths, the pool or beach and any really strenous activities. Plus, my incision sites were a bit sensitive and painful for a day or two after the test. I had steri-strips that stayed on the two small wounds for about 5 days, and went home with some extra bandages over the breast (above), which I removed the next day, when I was allowed to shower.
My doctor also gave me a swaggy ice pack for my bra, and it became my best friend for 48 hours.
I was given, but did not fill or use, a prescription for Tylenol with codeine, too.
During the biopsies, the doctor had me lay back on the ultrasound table and, after injecting me with a bit of Lidocaine to numb the area, he and the ultrasound tech worked together to help guide his (very small) needle into my breast, to take a few samples of tissue in each of the two suspect areas.
The numbing injection pinched for a moment and then I felt nothing. The needle required a little bit of pushing and tugging, but it didn’t hurt at all. Each biopsy took about 20-25 minutes, and before removing the needle, the doctor left a tiny — half the size of a staple — marker in each spot.
The marker (which does not set off airport Xray machines — I asked and the doctor said it’s the first question everyone asks him) would have allowed the team to quickly see the lump’s location if they had to go back in and perform a lumpectomy or other tests. Because they don’t need to do that, they will just stay…harmless and tiny…in my breast forever.
So, there you have it! My experience through the highs and lows and more highs of finding out that I had suspicious lumps in my breast.
Emotionally…it was that steep, wild ride at the theme park. Knowing that everything probably will be OK but not actually knowing that it is OK is a heavy burden to bear. And even with my good news, I know that so many people — perhaps some of you reading this post — are either going through a journey that will have a different ending.
If you have questions, or want a great resource, please look to my friend Emily’s story at Beyond the Pink Ribbon.
Emily is a mom in her 30s, battling metastatic breast cancer. Her website is packed with resources, including information for people who are newly diagnosed or who are in the diagnostic journey. Plus, she’s just a badass babe who is doing everything she can to help women and families navigate the world of cancer and breast health.
Thanks for reading!