A Breast Cancer primer - the impersonal biopsy

Before describing the biopsy, a dear friend and breast cancer survivor, Diane Pia, told me that I should talk about breast size regarding mammograms. She says, "I am always amazed how flat they manage to squish my small breasts. They get right to the rib cage and squeeze to what seems like the size of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Wonderbread. Doesn't hurt, but honestly, it is uncomfortable." She and I are at opposite ends of the body-size spectrum, but her description fits all sizes. Big or small, breasts have to get squished to get a good picture. Enough said.

In early December, my breast and I went to Milford Hospital for a needle biopsy. Like a mammogram, the breast is what gets all the attention in a biopsy, as if it's a separate being. No one paid attention to the look on my face that asked, "Is this going to hurt?" I first went to an examining room, put on a gown, and had a seat. The nurse started an IV in my arm (a small pinprick) and then I was transported on a gurney to radiology. The gurney ride was just like TV; fluorescent lights flashing by overhead, the transporter talking to me along the way. It was very cool.

In the room, I saw a mammogram machine, my x-rays, and a "special" padded table-special because it's difficult to describe. Thankfully, the room was not brightly lit. I hopped on the table, turned onto my stomach, and, like magic, my breast was automatically ready for action. Try not to imagine this-it's not natural. Instead, picture the outline of a murder-scene victim, facedown, head turned away, right arm above the head. I was positioned just like that. Except for the hole in the table. The purpose of the hole is to suspend and isolate the breast for easy access. I admit, the hole is a clever idea, but the designer of the table had to be male; no woman could possibly have thought of such a contraption. I can't think of another medical procedure for which this table is suited, though I'd like to volunteer to design one for the male anatomy.

From that point on, I have no idea who did the work because a) I closed my eyes, and b) I wanted no part of the specifics. I felt a pinprick in my breast from a small needle used to inject the local anesthetic. The area became numb in a few moments. For the next hour or so, the doctor described what he was doing and I tried to ignore him. He inserted a needle and took small amounts of tissue from my breast while I remained still. I felt nothing but my arm falling asleep and my neck getting stiff. After that, a small wire was installed at the site of the calcifications to mark the spot for future reference. After the test, my lower back hesitated to cooperate as I sat up, and the pins and needles sensation occurred as my arm "awoke." Those feelings were the worst part of the biopsy. Another mammogram was taken to check the wire placement and the biopsy was finished.

The doctor said to call his office if I didn't hear from him by the following Wednesday. I didn't think much about the results in the interim because I still felt nothing was wrong.

Later, when the anesthesia wore off, there was a little soreness, and bruising developed around the tiny incision. Frankly, I've had more pain stubbing my toe. The two pinpricks I felt that day were nothing compared to the pain I'd imagined from a foot-long, heavy, metal syringe that I was convinced would be stabbed into my breast. That was the needle I conjured up in the weeks before the biopsy. It got bigger as I got more anxious.

In the end, my needle biopsy sounded much worse than it was. At least there wasn't an outline of me left at the scene.

To be continued.

Dora Kubek is a member of the Elm City editorial staff, and a Milford resident. You may contact her at dkubek@ctcentral.com.