How One Woman with MS Handled a Breast Cancer Scare
Ever since I started annual mammography screenings 18 years ago, I have held the thought in the back of my mind that one day I might have to face breast cancer. The stats for this are so ubiquitous and so ominous that, even for we jaded, data-weary distaff members of the MS community that have long been plugged in to women’s health issues, it’s impossible to deny feeling some anxiety about the fact that one in eight women will develop breast cancer.
For the past 17 years—those during which I’ve managed multiple sclerosis—I have held a kernel of anxious thought in the front of my mind that I might one day face significant decline. That anxiousness has slowly been displaced by the humdrum daily management of symptoms and drug side effects. Just like most things in life, those small tragedies that erode our daily quality of life in the form of bladder incontinence, falling, limb weakness, pain, fatigue and scores of other indignities, have become as banal a part of my day as brushing my teeth. But these do not qualify as catastrophic events. At the time they first appear it certainly feels as though they are. But, honestly, what is truly catastrophic?
Two weeks ago I had my annual routine mammogram. I quickly got a call from my gynecologist to come back for a follow-up. He calmly stated it was nothing, just some difficulty visualizing the whole field of my right breast, always a possibility due to my dense fibrocystic tissue. I’d had two callbacks in the past that turned out to be nothing. I wasn’t worried.
But I walked into the 3D mammography room last Wednesday to a computer screen view of my breast and a technician directing my attention to a mass that hadn’t been there on last year’s mammogram. I told her my doctor never mentioned a mass and said it was just a poor image. “They say that because they don’t know the right words to use without alarming the patient,” she explained. I cared not a whit about this well-intentioned deception; I couldn’t take my eyes off the mass.
After taking more images, the mass, which was deep and close to the chest wall, did not clearly reveal itself as being either a cyst or a tumor. I was scheduled for an aspiration and possible biopsy. That was on Friday, just a few days ago. When the radiologist pushed the needle into the mass, it popped and disappeared from the screen. Mystery solved; it was just a small fluid-filled cyst. No biopsy or follow-up necessary.
This good news happened in tandem with an equally upbeat ending to a concurrent gynecological mystery titled: The Curious Case of the Postmenopausal Uterine Fibroids. A pelvic MRI showed conclusively that it was just two small myomatous fibroids that were asymptomatic. No follow-up necessary. The mystery remains that I had no fibroids during my high-estrogen child-bearing years when they usually appear, but now have developed in an estrogen-deprived postmenopausal uterus. It’s always good to be able to sink your teeth into the occasional one-off medical inconsistency, eh?
Still, I can’t say that I didn’t have a shaky moment the day I was told about the aspiration procedure, about the uncertainty of the outcome, and the possibilities stretching out before me. Shaky, yes, but not obsessing, not spazzing, not full-fledged upset. I marveled at my calm. Then I instantaneously understood why I was calm, that I’d been so preoccupied with chronic illness that the prospect of adding an acute condition and its subsequent treatment felt no different from adding a vitamin supplement to my pill tray. Ya do whatcha gotta do. That’s all.
We women with MS will age, and with aging comes a collection of comorbidities. We might plateau in terms of our MS disease progression, but whether or not that happens, we will still experience age-related decline in the form of cancers, joint deterioration, organ failure, heart disease, Type II diabetes, and more.
And here is where I question the term “catastrophic.” As a middle-aged woman who has had two of my “worst nightmares” come true: Developing an incurable disease and being abandoned by a spouse because of it—the only moment that was felt as catastrophic was the abject fear of it happening before it actually happened. The aftermath didn’t leave me broken on the rocks at low tide, quite the contrary. I’ve never been stronger or more confident than I am now. The needlepoint hanging on my wall reads: “Bring it on, baby. I can handle anything.”
I don’t mean to diminish the fear and grief of those of us who are diagnosed with life-threatening illness. Feeling fear and grief acknowledges the real possibility of a life cut short, and the prospect of unbearable pain that cannot be relieved at its most advanced stages. Such events should evoke compassion and validation. I realize now that I haven't yet experienced a truly catastrophic trauma. All I’m saying is that my breast cancer scare provided a touchstone that revealed the vigor of my ability to cope with whatever life throws at me and a level of confidence and inner peace that I wasn’t aware existed.
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