Coping with Breast Cancer - a primer

"On average, mammography will find 90 percent of the breast cancers in women without symptoms." - Y-Me National Breast Cancer Organization.

Breast cancer. There, I've said it. Nothing could have floored me more than to hear those words. After all, I've never had a major illness, disease, or operation; I breast-fed my daughter; there's no breast cancer history in my family. I thought the fuss about the biopsy was nothing more than an exercise in caution. The doctors even said it was probably nothing. I forgive them though. One of their jobs is to provide hope.

This is the first of several columns that will appear intermittently about the discovery, diagnosis, treatment and recovery from breast cancer. The columns will appear sporadically because I'll be writing them as I go through the procedures and stages of treatment. I am certain that creative moods will be interspersed with depressed moods, humorous moods, and downright irritable moods. Nothing new there; just ask my family.

There are several emotional stages to deal with as well, including denial and anger. I haven't even gotten past the denial stage yet. Now, after announcing this information in such a public manner, it's safe to assume that I have acknowledge the disease.

I made the decision to write about my experiences for several reasons: one is to provide myself emotional therapy - writing simply slows me down; another is to provide first-hand information about what it feels like to get a mammogram, a biopsy, a lumpectomy, and radiation. The main reason I decided to go public is to appeal to women to get a mammogram. Especially after the age of 40. And once a year after that. The statistics about breast cancer are staggering. Years ago one in 12 women were diagnosed with it; today the number is one in eight women.

I am 47 years old. I've had six or seven routine mammograms, all showing nothing, each serving as the baseline to which the next mammogram is compared.

Getting a mammogram was quick and painless. It took less than about 10 minutes from the time I walked in the x-ray room to the time I left. If I had the choice to have a headache, get a pin prick in my finger, or get a mammogram, I'd pick the mammogram, every time. Yes, it is uncomfortable and awkward, and yes, it's a little strange to have another female handle my breasts as if they weren't attached to the rest of my body. I'm certain, however, that the technician sees more breasts every day than Hugh Hefner. I'm also certain that the technician chose this job because of her genuine concern for women's health and comfort. The technicians with whom I have dealt have all been nothing but professional, gentle and compassionate.

The only discomfort I have ever experienced from a mammogram came from the Plexiglas pressing against my chest, and having to lean into the machine, but it's only for a few seconds during each of about four x-rays. I was clothed from the waste down, and an open gown over the shoulder not being x-rayed kept me warm and feeling less naked. The technician was well aware of how awkward I felt. She and I dealt with these moments with humor. It helped.

I had about four pictures taken. I was told that if I got a call to return for another mammogram, it would be to double-check the results. It didn't necessarily mean that there was anything to be concerned about. I was called back a few days after the second mammogram. This time, only a couple of pictures of one breast were necessary.

The first mammogram at the end of October 2002 showed "something." A second mammogram, a week later, showed the same something. The something was what the doctor called calcifications in one quadrant of one breast. They could still be nothing, but he wanted me to have a biopsy.

I had to wait five weeks for a biopsy, which gave me the false hope that there couldn't be anything wrong because if there were, I thought the doctor would order someone to schedule a biopsy right away. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, but he assured me that the calcifications were so small that a few weeks wouldn't matter either way.

I scheduled the biopsy and waited. In the meantime, I remained focused on the holidays as much as possible. Thankfully the number of things to do for the season, including planning our annual holiday party, kept me distracted. I briefly thought of canceling the event, but decided not to. I looked forward to it every year probably more than my guests and thought there couldn't be a better way to go on with life as usual.

I had a few weepy and frightful moments during those days, but they were more about the biopsy procedure than the results at this point. I still thought there was nothing wrong with me.

To be continued.

Ediotr's note: Ms Kubek is a member of the Elm City editorial team and a resident of Milford.