Today, five years ago, our family lost my grandmother. I talked a bit about her the other day because I was missing her dreadfully. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s been a bit of a rough summer and missing her only served to exacerbate the situation and I had another day filled with tears. I may cry a bit today. I don’t know. The day ain’t over yet, so we’ll see.
My grandmother was 92 years old. Would she have died anyway of just plain old age? Would her body have just given in to the illustrious quietness of dark simply because it was time? Probably. But that’s not what robbed us of her. Breast cancer did.
Grandma was raised as part of a generation whom did not discuss girly parts, girly problems, or girly concerns with anyone up to and including their family physician. We aren’t even sure how long she’d been suffering, but by the doc’s estimate it was quite some time for when she finally admitted there was a problem, it was far, far, far too late to do a thing about it. Now, would she have opted for dreadful treatments? Probably not, nor do I think for one minute the doc would have suggested it to her at her age. One way or the other, this awful reaper was going to take her. However, had it been caught early enough, surgery may have allowed us to keep her a while longer. She may not have been in the pain at the levels she must have endured silently for so long. By the time she finally admitted to anyone there was a problem, however, all that was left to do was palliative care and she had near emergency surgery for pain management. Her entire breast was blackened and the cancer had erupted through the skin in sores. It. Was. Awful.
I was living in the Pacific Northwest at the time and learned on a Monday what was going on and that she was to have surgery that Friday. I made it home to the Midwest the evening prior. An overnight stay post-surgery and she was back at Mom’s where I made my home for the next three months or so, spending time with her, talking, laughing, crying. In June, I returned home because life does go on even in the worst of situations and I had to take some self-care time and tend to my own hearth and home for a while. The most pressing issue was talking to my own doctor. You see…I was 45 and had never had a mammogram myself.
The suggested age for beginning annual mammography exams is forty. When I went for my annual female exam when I was forty-one, my NP didn’t even examine my breasts during that appointment and told me since I had never had a lump and had zero family history of breast cancer I wasn’t at high risk and suggested I didn’t need annual mammograms at all. Okay! I’m an anxiety ridden mess anyway, and people touching me particularly around, near, or on my girly parts triggers panic attacks. In my book, it was one less thing to worry about and one less thing to trigger a panic attack. (That’s all code for it was a terrific excuse to skip it!) Bonus points for not even needing to go back for another annual pelvic exam for three years. If you’ve never had an abnormal test reading, according to the lab at the last naval clinic, after you’re forty every three years is plenty to be poked and prodded on. Something in my gut balked at this advice, but I wasn’t yet afraid enough of what I didn’t know to be at peace with what I might know with regular exams.
Let me be quite frank here. That. Advice. Was. Complete. Bullshit.
Even if I wasn’t getting annual mammograms, I at least needed a baseline, and I sure as heck needed to be getting my annual pelvic along with a breast exam and a refresher on how to check my own breasts. Those annual exams are for so much more than just a quick scrape to make sure your cervix is healthy. Your cervix isn’t the only girly bit that needs regularly checked during a pelvic anyway. Aside from that, the annual exam gives you and your provider the chance to cultivate an actual intimate patient-provider relationship. It gives you the chance to ask questions about anything having to do with your health you might be concerned with. It helps you to be comfortable coming to your provider at the first sign of trouble rather than waiting until it might be too late. It allows your provider to keep you informed on any new information coming out concerning women’s health issues, and keep you up to date on current recommendations. Not see your OBGYN for three years? Seriously? Who the actual hell actually believes that’s a good idea?
The chances of a woman having invasive breast cancer in her life is 1 in 8 according to the ACS. I know well over a dozen women who’ve been diagnosed or are currently battling it. It seems the statistics are a bit higher in my immediate circle of acquaintances. In fact, they may be completely backward. And contrary to my previous NP’s assessment, I’m now in a little bit higher risk category and as soon as I learned this I took it upon myself to overlook her take on things and started the process of going round and round between my then current doctor’s office and my insurance to get my very first, baseline mammogram. In short, I took control of my health care!
Upon returning to the Pacific Northwest from seeing the horrifying condition my grandmother was in at her age, I called my doctor’s office immediately and all but demanded a mammogram effective yesterday. It took over three weeks to get approval. Three weeks! Just for the approval. Ladies, there is no time to delay. When I think three weeks in terms of, what if? To me this is unacceptable and an outrage. However, that being said, don’t give up. It’s said when the fear of not knowing overcomes the fear of knowing, peace will follow. I’m at peace as I write this today because in July, for the fifth year, I got confirmation that all is well with my tatas and I’m clear, but it’s now noted in my files an annual follow-up is recommended which makes things much easier in making the appointment these days.
While all was quiet on the tata front back in 2014, another predator was lurking, one I had no idea was invading my space.
It was mid-September 2014 when Mom called to let me know time was short and I should be coming back home. Hospice had been helping take care of Grandma for several weeks and the nurse had advised that she didn’t have much time left. Once again, I made the trek to the Midwest. The day I arrived was the last time I would be able to talk to my grandma. The next day, she fell into a coma and remained so until she passed away on the afternoon of October 4.
It was only a few weeks after returning home after the funeral, I knew something was amiss with me. At first, I believed stress may have been playing havoc on my system, then I tinkered with the notion that at age 45 I was going through menopause. Most of the women in my family have some sort of trouble with their girly parts and it’s not unheard of in our family for women to go through menopause early. After a couple of weeks of nonstop issues, I called my OBGYN and went for a visit. She wasn’t completely sure what the problem was, but she scheduled some tests from which it was determined I had a sizeable polyp in my uterus. She biopsied it in her office one morning, and it was determined it was benign. It was then I was set up for a hysteroscopy to remove it. I was admitted as an outpatient and three hours later, I was back home and the polyp was sent away to the lab.
Two days later, I received the phone call that the initial biopsy was wrong and I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. Within four days, I consulted with a specialist, and five days after that, I was in the hospital for a complete hysterectomy. From my first symptom until my surgery was less than two months. I was lucky. I didn’t hesitate to call my doctor when I first knew something was amiss, because I had learned my lesson insofar as acting at the first sign of trouble, and she wasted no time in setting up the various diagnostics I needed and wasted less than no time getting me into surgery when it became evident what was wrong with me. Endometrial cancer can be aggressive if left undiagnosed and untreated. Mine didn’t breach my uterine wall, that’s how fast I was diagnosed and treated. I was so very lucky. I didn’t require follow-on treatment of any kind, and I’ve been cancer free for four years now.
The bottom line is this…own your health care. If your doctor or lab gives you advice that your gut tells you is questionable, seek a second opinion. Get your regular annual exams, whatever those might be…breast health, gynecological health, mammograms, blood work. At the first sign of trouble, don’t be too afraid of what you don’t know to find the peace that comes from knowing. My grandmother suffered needlessly for far too long because of fear. We’d have lost her anyway, but the suffering could have been eased and so much sooner. If I’d been too afraid of the unknown to ask for help, I could have died. Don’t be afraid…seek help, demand answers, ask for second opinions, ask questions, and don’t miss your annuals. Be your own best advocate.
This month is breast cancer awareness month, but for me it’s more. It’s gynecological health awareness month. Due for a mammogram? Get one. Haven’t had a pelvic in a while? Get one. Need a refresher in self-examination? Ask for education. While we don’t have cures yet, we have our voices and early detection is everything when it comes to treatment. Use your voice. Loudly if necessary.