A Personal Look at the Breast Exam Debate

21 Nov

As the mammography debate is raging on, I want to take a moment to tell a personal story.

Three years ago, during a self breast exam, I found a lump. I happened to have a routine OBGYN visit around the corner and through a simple clinical exam, my doctor also found the lump. My doctor was concerned and sent me to a women’s diagnostic center to have an ultrasound done. My ultrasound revealed that the lump was a fibroid and nothing more—“lay of the caffeine for a month, and it should go away,” said my doctor. My relief was palpable—I was a false positive. It was a traumatic experience, but one I am glad I went through.

The part of this story that still has me thinking about that day, however, was a woman in the waiting room. Let’s call her Judy. Once I had signed in, I was told to put on a gown and wait in a communal waiting area. So here I am, in a room full of vulnerable women wearing nothing but a cotton gown, all with an unknown lump on our body. Naturally, we began to chat. Most of the stories are the same. Our doctors had either found a lump via mammography or clinical exam. But Judy, well, Judy piped up and said she had found a lump 4 months earlier during a self-exam, and had just gone to her doctor. Judy was probably nearing 50. She was a beautiful woman, but clearly, she was scared. She had been letting this lump grow for 4 months! I was scared for her. Now of course, her lump could be benign, it could be a fibroid, it could be a cyst, but with all of those “could be’s” there is also the big BC. And the fact that Judy didn’t feel comfortable telling her doctor for 4 months about her lump is and was terribly concerning to me.

I have no idea what happened to Judy. I hope with my deepest hope that her lump was benign. But her situation begs the question, “What will this latest revision to the breast exam standards do to women like Judy?” By telling a woman like Judy that she doesn’t need to a mammogram until she is 50, and that she shouldn’t even be doing a self-exam, where does that leave her? She was clearly either too unconcerned or too scared to tell her doctor for 4 months. My doctor has always made it a point to insist upon self-exams, and yearly clinical exams. And I thank her for that dearly, because the day I found something, it wasn’t scary. I called her office, moved up my yearly exam, and had the lump checked out. It wasn’t even scary until I had left the diagnostic center and my relief took me over, all because it was somewhat routine for me.

I understand the logistics in place with the task force guidelines, however, from my perspective, my fear is that giving women the chance to ignore the possibilities is far worse than exposing them to a couple of days of stress—or heaven forbid, a couple of years of chemo.

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