Sponsored - Sonja Hegman, Avera Writer
“We found an abnormality on your mammogram. You’ll need to come back for further screening.”
My heart stopped. My stomach sank. It was only my second routine mammogram and they found something “abnormal.”
Call Back Tips
I probably did everything one shouldn’t do when getting call back. I panicked. I went to the worst-case scenario. Do not do what I did.
- Don’t panic: I know it’s easier said than done, obviously, but until you know for sure, try to keep a level head.
- Realize that around 10% of women receive call backs. This percentage is less with 3-D mammography. Of that small percentage who are called back, less than 1 in 10 have cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. In the majority of cases, it’s a cyst or other benign mass, or just an unclear picture or something that looks different from your previous mammogram.
- Talk to your partner, spouse or a friend: During my first bout with cancer, I didn’t have a support team. I went through it alone. This time, though the outcome was favorable, I talked to Thomas, my fiancé, and my cousin, Lee, who are the two most supportive people I could ask for and I don’t know what I’d do without them. While I know they were both insanely worried, they still tried to convince me that it was nothing to worry about. Talk it out with your people. Don’t go through it alone.
- Ask questions: Ask your health care provider as many questions as possible about your situation. They are there to help you. While I was incredibly stressed and nervous during my call back, asking questions and talking it out a bit with people in the know made me feel less afraid.
Jumping to Conclusions
By nature, I always go to the worst-case scenario. When I got that call, my mind started racing: I can’t leave Thomas this way. What about the cats? Should we get married now instead of Halloween? What about all the things on my bucket list? Should we sell everything and buy a motor home and travel North America? Go to Japan? Or just travel in general?
And, ultimately, my main thought was, “Having cancer twice would not be cool, but it would be my luck.”
When I was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, I was understandably in shock, and this time, though I didn’t know if it was cancer yet, hit me in a similar way. Surviving cancer once was enough for me. When you spend your life surviving one tragedy after another, you become skeptical when life becomes easy. I’m happy for the first time and, in the back of my mind, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Breast cancer would definitely be a shoe drop.
I think about all of this as I schedule my follow-up.
The Follow-up Breast Cancer Screening
Fortunately, I was able to get in for my follow-up two days after initially receiving the news. This may or may not be typical, but I was thankful that I would know within 48 hours whether I could have breast cancer.
Those 48 hours were excruciating. Always being a student, I did some research by checking out the American Cancer Society web site. And I knew from my previous screening that I have dense breast tissue, which makes a call back more likely. Most of what I read said that it was “probably nothing.”
Still, I panicked. With my history of cancer and knowing that I had only one other mammogram image they were comparing it to, I was nervous. What could have changed between last year and this year? My second-ever screening and I was jumping to thoughts of, “I have breast cancer.”
I didn’t sleep well those two nights leading up to my follow-up appointment. Externally, I was attempting to play it cool as not to worry Thomas. Internally, I alternated between screaming and being numb. As we walked up to the Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls, I held Thomas’ hand tightly. I knew that he was nervous too, but we both were trying to be strong for one another.
On this day I would have a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound. The radiologic technologist in charge of performing the mammogram explained that due to my dense breast tissue, it’s common to have a call back. The images she would take would focus on my right breast because they spotted a difference between this year’s screening images and last year’s. She also assured me that I would know by the end of my appointment whether I had an “all clear” or would need further testing – like a biopsy. This was comforting but also scary.
Details of the Diagnostic Mammogram
In the diagnostic mammogram, several images are taken that focus on the area(s) in question to get a better look. It is slightly more uncomfortable than a regular screening mammogram. They are trying to get better images which means, depending on where in the breast they need to get a better look, they may need to flatten areas a little more than they normally would. For mine, they had to pinch into the area by my armpit.
Once this task was complete, I was ushered to another room for my ultrasound. The ultrasound tech distracted me with small talk as she placed gel on my breast and began taking even more images. She explained that using these images, they would be able to determine whether the abnormality would need further testing. Another available diagnostic tool is CESM – contrast enhanced spectral mammography. She also assured me that I would know the results before I left that day. I stared at the ceiling and focused on my breathing, hoping that I wouldn’t be another cancer patient.
As I got dressed and waited for news from the radiologist, it was difficult not to get emotional. It felt like my life was hanging in the balance and I was helpless to do anything. Then, roughly 15 minutes later (though it’s hard to know because time was running differently that day), the radiologist came in to tell me that what he saw was a 5-millimeter cyst that was benign.
“It’s about the size of a BB. It’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “We’ll just keep an eye on it.”
And I let out the biggest sigh of relief of my life and said, “Doc, I would hug you right now if it wasn’t for COVID.”
Yearly mammograms starting at age 40 can catch breast cancer earlier. Make an appointment at Avera.org/breastexperts.