Anxiety–Those Yearly Mammograms

A recent article in the New York Times (http://nyti.ms/1q4E05U) reported on a new mammogram technology that may be more effective in showing invasive breast cancers. Breast cancer specialists are searching for more precise tools.  Now radiologists, uncertain about what the mammogram shows, call women back for what proves to be an unnecessary second scan, which leads to anxiety.

I felt gratified that the article acknowledged the goal of reducing anxiety from what may prove to be an unnecessary follow-up. My own relationship with mammograms was full of anxiety. My first stun occurred when some calcifications showed up and I was told to return the same afternoon for a second scan. I was in my late 30’s. This was the first time I hadn’t sailed through with an “All clear, see you next year!” It was hard to breathe; I sat in my car in the parking lot of a CVS, unable to imagine anything else to do, waiting until my appointment time. The radiologist who examined the second scan gave me a qualified “wait and see.” Uncomfortable with the uncertainty, I sought out a breast cancer specialist I knew, Frank Gump, MD, to get a second opinion. “Not a problem,” he said. “These calcifications are in the periphery of the breast. You’re fine.” Much relieved, I vowed to get every mammogram examined by Dr. Gump to minimize the possibility of error.

Several years passed. Each year, I checked out the films from the radiologist’s files and took them to Dr. Gump to seek his opinion. The next stunner occurred when he looked at the films, which the initial radiologist had read as negative, and said with concern, that he saw a tumor. “How can that be?” The anxiety became unbearable until he looked at the envelope and saw that I had been given someone’s else’s films. Lucky me, poor other person. The last time I brought the films to him, again they had been read as negative, but this time, he saw a calcification in the center of the breast, behind the nipple. That day he did a biopsy, and a week later, he called to tell me that the biopsy showed very early stage cancer.

Now I am a breast cancer survivor with an additional history of what proved to be needless mammogram anxiety, much alleviated by Dr. Gump, for whom I will always be grateful. Perhaps the generation of women behind me may have less uncertainty, although uncertainty is our lot until there is a cure.