Editor's note: The National Cancer Institute reports that one out of every eight women will get breast cancer in her lifetime. Women between the ages of 20 and 39 should have a clinical breast exam every three years, while women 40-years and older need to have an clinical exam every year along with a mammogram. Finding breast cancer early means more options for treatment and a greater chance of survival, which is why breast self-examinations and mammograms are so important. But many women, for various reasons, still do not have them done. What follows is staff writer Ivy Herron's observations about her personal history of having preventative mammograms as a way to deter cancer.
When I was 20 years old, my doctor ordered an immediate mammogram after finding a large mass in my left breast and several smaller ones in the right.
Never having had a mammogram before, I was not prepared for the experience. No amount of explanation could have prepared me for having my breasts flattened like pancakes between two cold glass panels for an X-ray, but I was in severe pain and did it. When it was over, all I wanted to do was get out of there.
I thank God technology has advanced to make the procedure more comfortable for women in the past 20 years, but back then it was something I didn't want to do again real soon, no matter how beneficial it was to my health or my future.
The diagnosis was a large mass of fibroadenoma cysts in both breasts. Because of the amount of semi-solid tissue, my doctor said surgery for removal of the cysts was not going to be a choice. It was only a matter of time before surgery of some sort was required.
All I heard was cysts were very common in young women, so I wasn't concerned. When you're young, medical awareness is not a high priority on a youthful agenda.
When urged to do monthly breast self-examinations (BSE) and have annual mammograms to check for cancer, it only took a millisecond of serious consideration before I answered, "That's OK, we'll deal with it later."
It wasn't one of my shining moments, but I was young and the possibility of cancer was an afterthought. I'm ashamed to admit it now, but I ignored my doctor's medical advice at first. I followed it when I thought about it, which was usually when pain or my husband reminded me. Then a series of life-changing events gave me pause to re-evaluate my behavior.
My grandmother's sudden death brought the realization that life can be gone in an instant. Now, performing monthly BSE became important to me.
When I became pregnant with the first of two children, I started visiting the doctor's office more frequently. Having acquired adult responsibility, I wanted to be a part of my children's lives and grow old with my husband. It was time to learn exactly what fibroadenoma cysts were and if my daughter would be affected. Now scheduling regular mammograms became important to me.
When my mother lost a battle with cancer, I knew denying the possibility of cancer in my own life was over. Now there was a history of cancer in my immediate family.
At my husband's persistence, I started to go to the Indianapolis Women's Breast Center each year for testing. Knowing the center specializes in breast-related issues is a relief, but the days leading up to my appointment are filled with anxiety and worries.
Is this the year they find something? Has my time come?
I thought so last year when a mass detected in the left breast caused a second set of mammography tests. In all the years of testing that had never happened before. I remember my heart racing, my body trembling as the radiologist placed me back into the breast compression platform. If my worst fears were to be realized in the next 30 minutes, I worried how to tell my husband in the waiting room, my family, my friends.
"What happens next," was all I could think as I endured the test again.
It turned out to be nothing, my doctor reassured me. But when left alone in my thoughts, I think about the possibility of cancer becoming a reality.
After last year, I've been thinking about this year's appointment a lot. Not all the time, but when I do, I stare into the distance and gnaw at my fingernails like a beaver chewing a tree. It's the one physical sign of what is going on in my head.
As for my demeanor, I have become such a master illusionist over the years that most people don't know when my normal cheery, rational disposition has been replaced by a short-tempered hot-head riding the emotional roller-coaster named "What if?"
Some days I'm angry at everyone and everything. On others I fight back tears for no apparent reason, at least not one I care to admit to at that moment. It's hard enough to admit to yourself fear can affect your life so dramatically, it's even harder to share that burden with another person.
So, I laugh my way through the crummiest days, forcing a smile and my mind to fill up with other thoughts and ideas so I won't have to deal with fear creeping in.
It works most of the time, but there are moments when a real mental battle rages inside my head over which is better to do: Cry or desperately control the impulse to pounce on someone for trying my patience when I don't have any left.
My moodiness and silence in the days leading up to the appointment are especially aggravating to my family, but I admit to being too self-absorbed to care about what they think.
This year I have rewarded my husband with snarls instead of appreciation for cooking dinner. I tried to not scold my son's nightly comedy act, but failed after hearing the same joke for the third or fourth time. I yanked the computer plug out of the wall when my daughter didn't log off when I told her too. I've even thrown our cat outside because he mewed too loud while seeking my attention.
No one is safe from a possible outburst. Grocery clerks, salesmen, people in traffic and even my editor have drove me to exasperation. I hate my spiteful behavior when knowing I really shouldn't behave that way.
I know what to expect during the mammography test. I also know its possible to have to redo tests now that I'm older. I've even learned what treatment options are available if the tests come back positive. As the appointment approaches I am ready for what could happen, but I'm scared.
That fear has a hold on me, but the naive belief that I don't need to worry about it does not. I may be scared like every other woman waiting for the unknown, but finally understanding the importance of medical responsibility I'm taking action to see that other women don't ignore their health the way I used to.
I urge my friends and my daughter's teenage friends to learn and perform BSE and get their check-ups. I'm also helping organize my church's participation in the "Ropin' In A Cure" Relay for Life event in April as a way to support the American Cancer Society.
While waiting for over 40 minutes for this year's test results, another first for me, fear began to creep into my thoughts again. I'm fortunate cancer has not been a diagnosis during the past 20 years, but it seems the fear of it never quite goes away. Good news has a way of mentally placing my fear on the back burner, at least until next year.