This week I had my first mammogram. At 35. This is not my first experience with breast issues and it is not my first time having to talk to a doctor about my breast health and all the things that it entails. I am unfortunately a woman who has cystic breasts. I had my first biopsy and lumpectomy at 16 years old, first ultrasound at 25 and ongoing breast issues ever since. And thankfully, all of these issues ended up being benign. But, I am not naïve to the fact that for some women, a lot of women that I know personally, that this is not always the case.
The most frustrating and challenging part of this week was not the fact that I spent two hours this week at the hospital getting the mammogram, waited for a bit, got a second scan, waited for a bit again, and then an ultrasound. It was not the painful cyst in my breast that sent me to the doctor in the first place. It was not the waiting, or the results, or the potential for more cysts to be an issue in the near future (as has been the case for many years). Instead, it was how I had to fight, again and again and again to get that mammogram.
I just turned 35 years old. I have extensive family history of breast cancer, as well as ongoing menstruation and fertility issues which put me at a higher risk. And yet, this most recent doctor’s visit was the first time in years where my concerns, where my cyst and the pain associated with it was taken seriously. The doctor, who was filling in for my NP, took me seriously when I said I had an issue. The referral for a mammogram was immediately sent in and although an ultrasound was the “recommended” treatment plan, the lady on the other end of the phone, inquired why they weren’t doing more regular screening for me.
‘”You just had a birthday?” she asked.
“Yes.” I replied, confused.
“You are 35 now.” She asked.
“Yes,” I again answered.
“Good. You are the right age now.” She added. “We are not doing another ultrasound, we will put in for a mammogram. I am not sure why this hasn’t been done before”
Apparently I was old enough now. Although fifty years old and up is the standard screening for my province, in this case, my doctor pushing, and this sweet lady, made me eligible for early screening. Something I had been asking for since I was 25 years old.
The technician who did my scan was sweet and considerate. She answered any questions I had and was patient with my ongoing anxieties about the procedure. It wasn’t as bad as expected. Good. Then the radiologist wanted to do an ultrasound. She took her time and showed me the variety of different cysts in my breast. She was thorough. She asked about my family history and why I have not been eligible for further and more regular screening before now. She voiced frustration that none of the medical professionals I have seen over the years hadn’t done a risk assessment. She validated my concerns and the pain that I have, and will continue to experience. And although thankfully, the results were just cysts, she also recommended every six month check ins. I left feeling heard, validated and reassured that fighting for myself was paying off.
But I also left feeling frustrated. And left with so many questions.
Why did it have to take five different doctor appointments and multiple cysts drained before they considered me a proirity?
Why did it take another family member to be diagnosed before my family history was “severe” enough to make me high risk?
Why was my age so important when the symptomology didn’t change regardless of my age?
Why was I treated as another hysterical woman, when last time I had an ultrasound, the radiologist, a male one at that, tried to explain to me that breast tenderness is normal during my cycles? Why did he not take my pain seriously?
Why did my fertility issues, my irregular and severe periods or my elevated hormone levels not be indications that I should be monitored more consistently?
Why did I have to follow up on appointments, calling the women health clinics directly, or having to get referral after referral for testing instead of my medical support doing it for me?
Why was I not taken seriously?
Now, I wish that I could answer these questions and the others that tend to arise within the medical community, especially as women. Our pain can be seen as being in our head, our hesitancy in treatment plans is seen as anxiety and our fight for proper medical care is seen as combative or difficult. And that’s not fair. I understand that we are fortunate to live in a society where our medical needs are at no cost, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve a higher standard of care.
So, for those of you reading this. I ask for three things from you.
- Stand Up For Your Own Health. You are the expert of your own body and what is and isn’t going on with it. Listen to it. When you know you need something, speak up and stand up for yourself. Be that person who keeps asking for help when you need it to ensure you are getting what you need. And if your loved ones need that help too, stand up for them too.
- Question the system. When you have that medical professional feeding into skewed thinking or biases, call them on it. Tell that radiologist that significant breast pain, or extensive cramps, is not a normal part of being a woman. Tell that nurse that your chest pain or stomach pain is not anxiety or in your head. In order to change the system, we need to address the flaws within it. Be the voice that calls out for better treatment and further action.
- Check Your Boobies. (or for male counterparts, your testicles). Keep track of their shape, the lumps and bumps that will be standard for your body. And, if you notice something different, or concerning, don’t wait. Get it checked. It is better to be something benign or no cause for concern than to find out later it was not.
I will continue to do the same.
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