I (Shannon) had a goal for 2021. It wasn’t a traditional resolution, it was a goal that I had set for myself to stop saying words that revolved around fear. I often find myself saying, “I’m scared,” or “I’m afraid” and even though I like to be adventurous and experience new things, I am a worrier, and live in a significant amount of fear. I wanted this year to be different. I wanted to work on living in the now, with less fear and anxiety of what is to come, and focus on enjoying the present.
That is all easy to say and do until you go for your annual mammogram, expecting all to be fine, because I mean, when you go get your annual mammogram like you’re supposed to do, all is fine, right? I’m no dummy. I know better than that. I was the marketing director for a radiology practice, and half of my life during that time was consumed with promoting the importance of early detection for breast cancer, and breast cancer awareness. I know what happens to 1 in 8 women in the U.S. You, or I, just hope and pray that we are not that 1 who will get breast cancer in our lifetime.
So, imagine my fear when I get the call that I need to return to have additional views due to something being seen on an image of my left breast. I decided that it was just going to be something that they needed to do, because surely, the tech just didn’t get a very good image, and I would be walking out of there, no problemo. Well, I was saying that aloud, but inside, I was scared. I was also trying to remember my goal, and keeping those thoughts away. I returned, and was told that due to the appearance of the probable calcifications, that could also be cancer, it would be recommended that I have a biopsy. That is really, the short story. No point in getting into the long, drawn out details, but just know that fear ensued.
Fortunately, due to that past position I had with the radiology practice, I was able to reconnect with a renowned, well-respected breast specialist, Dr. Ericka Griffin in Greenville, North Carolina, who is not only top in her field, but despite her saying it was no big deal, she not only consulted me on my images, but agreed to perform my biopsy for me. I’d say I happily obliged, but you don’t happily go into a breast biopsy. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I wasn’t sobbing on the phone to her, like a child, fearful of her advice to have the biopsy. Hearing Dr. Griffin, the expert, advise as to why she felt like I needed it, of course, made me feel as though I was in great care, but it also made me terrified that I was in the situation I had seen so many other women in. Dr. Griffin worked me into her schedule the very next day. She’s a saint. Again, she would disagree, saying it was nothing, but for me, it was everything.
The fear that took over my entire body for the next 19 hours was almost unbearable. I was absolutely petrified. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t eat, think, sleep, hell, I couldn’t even imagine driving to the appointment. My mom came 3 hours to be with me, because even though I’m a grown ass woman, I still want my mom when I’m scared.
What was I afraid of?
I was afraid of the biopsy itself. I was afraid of the results. I was afraid of how my life would change if it was cancer. Dr. Griffin said that, if it were to be cancer, we were more than likely looking at DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ) : cells that line the milk ducts of the breast that have become cancerous, but they have not spread into surrounding breast tissue, Stage 0. If that were to be the case, I would most likely have surgery and some radiation. So, my mind prepares for the worst, but puts positive vibes out there, and makes every attempt to envision the best result, but I, of course, was about as fearful as I could be.
Fear did not win.
Here’s the thing. As much as I allow fear to enter my life, I did not, nor will not allow it to control the ending here. If I were to let fear win, I wouldn’t have gone to get the mammogram, and I surely wouldn’t have gone to get the biopsy. By the way, let’s talk about that biopsy, because as much as I Googled, and ladies, I GOOGLED! I didn’t find many comforting things about breast biopsies, so let me be the one to tell you that the thoughts of a needle entering my breast literally left me lightheaded and wanting to run for the border, if I didn’t pass out and vomit before getting there, but it was no big deal. Truly! Now, Dr. Griffin is also, ahhh-mazing, and I recommend you seeking her for a referral if you ever need one, but seriously, it was absolutely NOTHING, especially with what I created in my head, and I had even seen them before, during my training process while at the radiology practice. Seeing one, and experiencing are two different things. Seeing one was much worse.
Taking the Fear Away From the Process
I had a stereotactic breast biopsy. I want to talk about this procedure so that if you find yourself reading this and wondering what the experience is like, I want to tell you exactly what it was like for me, so you can remove any fear you have. So much of what I found on the internet was technical jargon, and no one telling their true encounter, so here is mine.
I changed into the regular mammo top half gown that opens in the front, and was taken into a room that had the table in it. By the way, the table looks scary. Wait. No, I’m lying. It looks absolutely terrifying, but don’t think about it. I cried as soon as I walked into the room and looked at it. I’m not exaggerating. I remember Dr. Griffin and the tech giving me instructions to climb up the steps to lie on the table, but I was so afraid that I just asked them to repeat the instructions. They just guided me, realizing I wasn’t listening to anything they were saying. Fear. I was lying on my stomach and placed my left breast through an opening so that it sort of hung through it. I felt so vulnerable, and strange, but Dr. Griffin made me feel at ease. As she told me afterwards, in a latter conversation, “I’ve been a patient, too. I know what it is like.”
I turned my head toward the wall so I couldn’t see anything. That’s just how I roll. Dr. Griffin was so comforting, such a calming demeanor, while skillful, reminding me to be still, all the while, telling me what she was doing every step of the way. I recall the breast plates, I believe maybe to get images for her, or maybe to hold my breast in place – maybe both, but this didn’t hurt. It was just pressure. She told me I would feel a small pinch, the needle with the anesthetic in my breast, but I hardly even felt that. After the procedure started, Dr. Griffin used the biopsy needle and imaging, cohesively, for the process. She asked me several times if I was OK, if I felt anything, and I did not. I was actually fine. After just a few minutes, she told me I would hear a noise, a click, and that was her inserting a tiny little marker into my breast where the cells had been. The marker is used to mark the area for any possible future procedures, and/or marking it as an area to watch. Several samples of tissue were taken for analysis by pathology, where I would wait for confirmation of whether or not those samples were cancerous cells. Immediately after, I sat up, feeling absolutely relieved, and amazed at how uneventful the whole procedure was. I then moved to another table, and while lying on my back, the tech put pressure on the tiny area of my breast to stop any bleeding. I then had a post-biopsy mammogram for Dr. Griffin to get a last look to make sure all was well.
Lastly, I had a bandage placed on the tiny area where the needle went in. I put my sports bra on (I had been asked to wear one so I would have compression when I left) and then had an ace bandage wrapped around my entire chest area after. Upon leaving, I felt zero pain. I was told that I would maybe feel soreness in a few hours, and to not lift, push, nor pull more than 5 pounds for the next 3-5 days, and to leave the bandage on for 24 hours.
The Waiting is the Hardest Part
So, once I made it past the biopsy, I had to wait for the results. That was the most difficult part. Knowing that your life, or the results of how your life will change, being in the hands of someone else, is unbearable for someone who needs to control just about everything. I struggled to sleep the night after, since I am a side sleeper, and the entry point of the biopsy was on the side of my breast. I was sore and tired. That probably helped matters. It gave me something else to think about. My mom was in town still, so we kept busy talking about travel plans for the summer, etc.
When the results finally came in, it was the news that I so hoped and prayed for- normal changes in the breast. Calcifications. It is not cancer. Thank God. I don’t think I can describe how vivid colors even became to my eyes after I received the news. I seriously, since, see things in a different way, I am so, so, grateful.
As Dr. Griffin said to me, “Shannon, this is why we have mammograms, to stay ahead of it.” It made me realize that overcoming my fear, truly saved my life. Being fearful of the results, of the procedure, of all of it, didn’t make the results turn out to be non-cancerous, but it did help me to stay ahead of anything that could have been cancerous, and would have saved my life. Also, the entire experience allowed me to share this with you, the reader. As I was Googling, doing all of the research on the biopsy experience, there were false narratives of stock photos of women smiling as they were posing with the machines, with biopsy needles, terrible stories and photos with scare tactics, or technical jargon that I didn’t understand. At least I am able to share the story of my experience so that if you are running across this story, know that you can take the fear out of the biopsy process, not to mention the mammogram process, and put that energy into being proactive, into practicing self-care, and taking preventative measures to stay ahead of the game, especially when it comes to routine annual screenings.
Lastly, I want to make sure that I add that fear is still very much in my thoughts. I am not fearless. I try to put positivity out into the world every day. I lead and envision positive events in my daily life, leading with my daily mantra: “I am healthy, I am whole, I am with God.” I believe that helps my mental wellness, and overall wellness. I also believe that it helps me to overcome that fear that still exists in my life, and that helps to save my life, every single day.