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.

Witnessing–A Cousin Lost to Breast Cancer

“When I was driving to work, I suddenly felt this terrible sharp pain in my breast.” Thus my cousin Cathy told me how she knew something was wrong.  The pain in her breast was diagnosed as inflamatory breast cancer.

Cathy's Robin

Robin–One of Cathy’s Series of Bird Pictures

Ten years younger than I, Cathy was only in her mid thirties.  A full-faced, smiling young woman, she was an artist and had developed a career designing needlework. She was not only developing a following, she had several patents and had won awards for her designs.

I had called Cathy because her mother, knowing I had also recently been treated for breast cancer, asked me if I would talk to her. Thus I became engaged long-distance (she lived far from me) with her in her struggle.  I was the far luckier person.  Cathy’s kind of cancer is aggressive and very hard to treat successfully. More than 20 years later, I’m still going strong.

Her treatment was harsh, including a bone marrow transplant, but she died within two years of her diagnosis.  She went, when she had to, from her home in the town where she worked to her family home, but she would go back to resume her life when she felt strong enough. She was always creating a cross-stitch project for someone during this time.

A tiny needlepoint picture of mushrooms by Cathy

A tiny needlepoint picture of mushrooms by Cathy

I think of Cathy often because we have displayed some of her paintings in our house. She was talented; we are both sad and enriched when we look at her work. I am also reminded of her mother, my Aunt Gloria. The youngest of three, Cathy’s mother lost her own mother at the age of 4.  Her father quickly remarried to a smiling, warm woman whom we called Mama Clo. My aunt and she got along fine; my aunt grew into a sturdy, matter-of-fact woman with a hearty laugh and a wry sense of humor.  She married and had two children, Cathy and a younger brother.  When they were about the age of Aunt Glora when her own mother died, her husband died of lung cancer. She married again to the local postmaster, outliving him after a long marriage. They were together with her when Cathy died, and together they cleared out her apartment and folded down her life.

The last time I saw Aunt Gloria, she was living alone in the house she had lived in with her late husband.  Her son had built a house next door. She welcomed us with pleasure and we spent lunch together reminiscing, catching up, remembering the family members we had lost.  When we asked if she had any of Cathy’s work, she gave us some of Cathy’s paintings.

Cathy Livingston photo

Cathy about a year before she died