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Unpacking the mental load of a health scare

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I had a health scare this week and it knocked the wind out of me. Thankfully, I am ok. But the mental weight from navigating a possible threat to my wellbeing rocked my world and left me feeling powerless and vulnerable.

During my routine yearly breast MRI, they saw something suspicious. I walked in completely unassuming to that appointment. I went through the motions like I do every year. My mammogram and ultrasound the week prior showed nothing concerning, so I felt confident I was in the clear for another year. But then, my doctor called me at 7:30 pm that same evening, as I was in the car with both of my kids coming home from my 12 year old’s dance lesson. I answered on bluetooth thinking it would be an uneventful call. And that’s when she said, “They see a small nodule on your left breast in the MRI and you need a biopsy”. I felt the air leave my lungs, my chest got tight and I locked eyes with my older daughter and tried to keep it together and remain calm.

My mother is a breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed in her early 60s and underwent a lumpectomy and radiation. Even though I was only in my mid-thirties at the time, my doctor put me on a yearly mammogram schedule. After the first couple of years, they estimated my lifetime risk to be 17.3 percent , which falls into the intermediate category (anything above 20% is considered high risk). That’s when I was put on a staggered schedule with a mammogram and ultrasound followed six months later by a contrast MRI, where they inject dye via IV into your arm to get a more detailed look at the breast tissue.

Because of my mom’s history, these yearly tests always come with a certain level of anxiety. And there have been years where they’ve spotted little things here and there. But never anything that warranted a biopsy. When they called to schedule, I only heard a smattering of terms that rattled me, like

7mm nodule

Very small but irregular shape

Questionable internal blood flow

My doctor told me I had been assigned a risk level of 4 out of 5. Five indicates suspicion of malignancy so getting a 4 didn’t exactly bring me comfort or feel like a passing grade. She said the majority of 4s, over 50% specifically, come back benign. I still didn’t feel assured by those odds either. And the waiting was the worst. Paralyzing. Waiting to get appointments. Waiting to be seen at said appointments. Hearing the clicks and beeps from all of the machines that would soon determine my fate. Minutes felt like hours and hours felt like a lifetime. I did not stop praying from the second I woke up every single day.

Please God let it be nothing.

Please God let it be nothing.

Please God let it be nothing.

I mentally left my body for the next week and went through the motions. I tried to hold it together but was overwhelmed by fear. In my head, I played out all of the scenarios.

It could be nothing.

It could be something we caught so early that we’d be fortunate.

It could be something bad.

Really bad.

Every single day after the MRI, I woke up with a heavy heart thinking about statistics and odds and people I know, my peers, who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. I mindlessly made breakfast for my kids, packed school lunches, folded laundry. I tried to be “normal” but my chest felt like I was walking around wearing full body sheet rock. I couldn’t look at my kids without tearing up. My husband, my rock, tried his best to comfort me. He kept telling me that everything was going to be fine. But we both knew deep down there was no way for him to actually know that. I was a mess. Please God let it be nothing.

I went for my biopsy and stared at the television showing images of waterfalls cascading down rocks that I suppose are playing in the background to give you some sort of peace. I was terrified. In my head, the whole time saying, Please God let it be nothing.

Two days later they called to tell me that my results were in early and booked my follow up appointment for the next day. I couldn’t stop pacing and wringing my hands and pleading with the universe. I wiggled into my pink hospital gown mindfully as not to rub against the steri strips and hematoma that was already forming from the biopsy. And then my husband and I waited in loaded silence. It was only 10 minutes before the doctor came in and I think I held my breath that entire time. Before she even closed the door completely and sat down, she said, “GOOD NEWS! IT’S BENIGN!”

Benign.

I didn’t hear anything past that word because I had a full-body emotional release. Sobbing uncontrollably. Shaking. Thanking god. And my husband was mirroring every single tear. After the doctor left, we stood there, clinging to each other as all of the pent up fear in both of us that had been building over the last two weeks, came out. My terror turned to relief as soon as I heard those words, “BENIGN.”

When I walked into my house, I hugged my children harder than I ever have. My parents and I hugged equally as hard. You could feel the relief in every single motion and mannerism from everyone in my living room. A stark difference from the tone just a couple of hours before. Everything was ok. I was ok.

During the month of October, there is constant Breast Cancer Awareness talk. Every social media channel is packed with prompts to get checked. Professional sports teams wear pink ribbons to promote breast cancer awareness. Charity events and fanfare are front and center. And then it gets quiet. But we have to be mindful of the risks and taking precautions to keep us safe every other month of the year too. We can’t get complacent.

Be vigilant about getting checked, because we know that early detection makes a huge difference. Now more than ever, many people are putting off important appointments, including mammograms and accompanying breast screening, for fear of being in any medical centers or hospitals during Covid. Please don’t put it off. Please take advantage of all of the resources, technology and physicians you have access to. Ask questions. Be a relentless advocate for your care.

My mammogram and ultrasound did not originally pick up the tiny nodule. It was caught in the MRI. And that’s all I needed to know to justify why I do all of this testing every year. Because of my mom’s breast cancer, I will always enter my appointments with some fear. But right now, I am reveling in gratefulness and saying over and over again, Thank God it was nothing!

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