I remember my first mammogram about 20 years ago. And, the reason was more chilling. It came when I discovered a lump in my breast when I was taking my morning shower that was not there even the day before. I went numb. I began to shake. I could not breathe.

Photo Credit: Mass Communication Specialist
2nd Class Joseph Moon, U.S. Navy, public domain.

You see, my older sister found a lump when she was 27 and it was tiny, about the size of a small pea, and seemed insignificant, or so her doctor thought. He went in to remove it and performed the cursory biopsy and found that it was malignant. I can still see the surgeon as he stood in the waiting room with Momma, my brother-in-law and I listening to him say, “It’s cancer.” Momma immediately said, “Oh, no, let it be me. I am old.” And, with that she and my brother-in-law gave the surgeon permission to remove the breast, lymph nodes and more to give my sister a better chance at survival. They called this procedure a radical mastectomy. And, the year was 1972, not necessarily the protocol observed in today’s medical community. The following year, she found a lump in the other breast, but it was benign. We spent a few days in terror and tried to maintain some sort of composure. It was trying, painful and, at times, almost impossible. We were really scared.

When I found my lump, I was also shaken. Was I going to find out the same thing? Was I going to have to undergo what my sister had decades ago?

My doctor’s office gave me a same-day appointment so I could get this situation resolved, or at least figured out. He sent me down to the x-ray department to get “pictures.” This was before the advent of the equipment that is now used in diagnostic clinics across the nation. Gowned, I flailed myself all over the table. Lying this way and that to contorted ends. I had to sit on a chair next to the table and lay my breast on it so that they could get a top view. Not easy for most folks.

Afterward, I went back upstairs to see the doctor. He’d get a quick radiological read on the film and let me know. I waited. In the meantime, he attempted to get fluid out of the lump via a needle (they call it aspiration). He stuck and stabbed me until I thought I’d pass out, digging around, trying to find an entry point to no avail. It simply was too solid to penetrate.

They needed to explore the films more and told me that they’d call me on Monday morning (this was Friday afternoon). I could hardly sleep over the weekend. I was panicked.

On Monday, my doctor called. He said that they wanted to see how this looked in three months. I almost choked. I immediately told him I was not waiting for three months and that I wanted it out now. I did not want the same thing to happen to me that had happened to my sister. He understood and ordered a surgery date that week.

I chose to have the procedure done under a local anesthetic. I did not want to be woken to find out something bad. I wanted to know immediately, if this were the case. Fortunately, the lump was just a fibrocystic mass and they got it all out, bandaged me up and sent me on to recuperate. I felt relieved, lucky that things were okay.

The next year, when it was time for me to be checked out again, they had purchased equipment that is similar to that used today. The technicians were a bit green in how to use it and for me, it was like a scene from a comedy show.

I was asked to place my breast into the vise that smashed my boob until I thought it was going to explode (you women know exactly what I am talking about). She said, “put your feet flat on the floor.” I did that. But, my breast pulled out of the contraption. We went through this exercise several more times until I said, “Look, I can either put my breast on the plate or I can put my feet on the floor flat, but not at the same time. You choose!” She finally lowered the plate so I could do both. What marvels communication gives us in outcome! And, thus the annual process continued.

For those of you who have never had a mammogram, it really is a simple procedure. You don’t have to take anything, nor do you have to prepare in any specific manner, except you can’t wear lotions, powders, deodorant, antiperspirants or anything that might obscure the image. This is really important and it could serve to save your life.

There are a host of centers that can take you in with an appointment. They send the results to your doctor who will share the findings with you. From time to time, there are mobile units that go to communities to provide their services. Some of these are free of charge. Check to see if you qualify.

The N.C. Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Program provides free or low-cost screenings and follow-up to eligible women across the state. To be included, one should be between the ages of 40-64 who have a household income at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, are uninsured or underinsured and are without Medicare Part B or Medicaid. To find a local clinic, call 919-707-5300.

According to the Breast Cancer Resource Directory of North Carolina, state law “requires health insurance to cover screening mammograms, including one baseline exam for women ages 35-39, a mammogram every other year for women ages 40-49 and an annual mammogram for women age 50 and over. Coverage may include more frequent exams for women at high risk. Medicare now covers mammograms every year.”

Early detection is important. If left too long, you may not survive. Don’t let fear stand in your way, whether it’s your first time or you are seasoned. This is especially imperative if you have family members who have had breast cancer. It can be familial. Genetic markers may make one person more susceptible than others. In some cases, women choose to have mastectomies as a prophylactic measure if there has been cancer in their family, like a mother or a sister. Though costly, the genetic marker test can be something that some women use to make major healthcare decisions.

And, finally, men, you are not immune to breast cancer. Although more rare, it can indeed happen to you. Be sure to check with your physician if you are concerned and schedule an examination. : :

Lainey Millen

Lainey Millen was formerly QNotes' associate editor, special assignments writer, N.C. and U.S./World News Notes columnist and production director from 2001-2019 when she retired.