I have met the machines, and they have made me love them.
Mammograms, ultrasounds, an MRI, a PET scan and heart scans – and the people who conduct them – located the lump I didn't notice. They searched out cancerous lymph nodes. They located the outlier cells building up for an attack behind my breastbone.
The machines triggered the response that is saving my life through surgery, chemotherapy and, come the fall, radiation.
In the midst of my personal gratitude, the Canadian National Breast Screening Study has posted findings of a 25-year clinical trial. It followed 90,000 women, of whom half got regular mammograms and half got breast exams by trained nurses. Both groups had about the same rate of death from breast cancer. The big discussion now is whether mammograms are valuable lifesavers, or tools that don't make much difference and sometimes lead to unnecessary treatment.
We should all be listening to that discussion, learning more about the study's guidelines, and thinking about how closely they fit our personal experience.
In my Lucky Woman's journey into breast cancer treatment, this study is one more thing for which to be thankful. I've written two columns so far, and both of them have been about me, me, me. Though that works for introductory purposes, and though it has delivered to me the great gift of your good wishes, it's no way to go forward. If this column is to do any good, it will be as a discussion. Why write about breast cancer if we can't share our experiences, opinions and advice?
Here's my proposal: I'll use my treatment path as our outline. We're wrapping up the diagnosis in this installment, and will move on to surgery, through chemotherapy for a few months, then radiation and a clinical trial as the grand finale.
We'll talk about lumpectomies and mastectomies, singles and doubles.
We'll explain chemo ports, and reveal the mystery behind those inch-long scars you see on so many upper torsos. We'll propose a Survivor Girl band: A Port in Every Girl. We'll have a photo of a port in action in an infusion suite, which, Dr. Who fans, will remind you of an Ood Glee Club.
We'll talk drugs. Just say yes.
We'll go wig shopping, and revisit R. J. Palaccio's “Wonder,” last year's Tacoma Reads book, for insight on what it feels like to see, or be, a person – especially a woman – walking around with the incorrect amount of hair.
For anticipated lack of journalistic manners, please allow me to ask your forbearance in advance. Surgery, just a simple lumpectomy, slammed me onto my backside. I expect chemo to whomp me into the ground, then do squat jumps on me. I'll be operating on low battery, and I may not have the energy to get back to you personally. Please know that I appreciate what you are bringing to the discussion.
And now, back to the discussion of that Canadian study. Back to the machines.
Call me Science Girl.
I love data, and I love technology that catches stuff that touch and intuition can't.
That's why I love mammograms, especially the one's I've gotten at the Carol Milgard Breast Health Center. It's not that the place is spa-peaceful, with white bathrobes and old People magazines. It's that it's aggressive in reaching out to women for whom breast health is not a habit. It educates women in breast self-exams, similar to the manual exams in the Canadian study. It also provides tech back-up, images of masses.
I want both. I want them because I'm fallible to the point of sloth. I have never been a good breast self-examiner. Raise your hand if you're with me here. Give yourself a personal Brava if you're not. I missed my lump. The mammogram caught it.
Once caught, other machines got closer to it in a sonogram and ultrasound. “Whatever it is, it's manageable,” the radiologist said.
But the machines looked even deeper.
An MRI recorded slices of my body, and found trouble in the lymph nodes. A PET scan lit up those breastbone bad boys.
Without that technology, we might have thought I was good to go with a lumpectomy followed by radiation.
It would have been a cheap victory, and a short one. Now we're ready for the real war.
Call me Science Girl.
And let's talk cancer.
Self-Care Tip of the Week:
The weekend after you start chemotherapy, DO NOT binge-watch “House of Cards” on Netflix. Francis is cancer, just spelled with different letters. He's no good for your brain. While we're at it, don't read Scandinavian crime fiction, either. Even when there's sun, it's dark. You don't need it.