A couple weeks ago I arrived at the breast center clutching an emergency Xanax wrapped in tissue paper. It was time for my annual “half spa day,” the term used to prettify the blood pressure-spiking few hours that it takes to get a breast exam, mammogram, and ultrasound.
Since my breast cancer scare, I’ve chosen to be aggressive with my yearly screenings, paying out-of-pocket to have my breasts smashed and probed at the renowned Pink Lotus, where Sheryl Crow was treated for breast cancer and Angelina Jolie received her preventative double mastectomy.
When two tumors were found in my right breast several years ago, I endured months of diagnostic scrutiny at a huge, cold, impersonal hospital. I still have PTSD-like flashbacks: shivering on a table while a team of breast aficionados filed into the examining room, furrowing their brows as they studied my screens, all agreeing that the second tumor looked “odd.” One excisional biopsy later, it turned out to be completely benign, but I was informed that I had a 26% chance of developing invasive breast cancer and I should consider taking Tamoxifen, a medication often taken to prevent the emergence of cancer, but which also has the unfortunate side effect of plunging a woman into menopause.
After consulting with a whole other cadre of breast experts, I opted not to ingest a powerful drug that was no doubt making the board of AstraZaneca richer than God. My odds were not high enough to warrant an early and harsh menopause, and who knows what other health issues that might ensue. I’m cynical about what I suspect are pharmaceutical-funded research studies, the studies that have told women to take HRT, not to take HRT, to get annual mammograms, not to get annual mammograms, blahblahblah.
Each time I received the “no evidence of cancer” mammogram results, I felt that I had dodged death — at least until the next year. And as the months ticked by, inching me closer to annual screening time, the second-guessing in my head grew louder. What if the last mammogram hadn’t picked up cancer? What if I had a tiny malignant mass my fingers couldn’t feel? And if this were the case, would taking Tamoxifen have prevented it?
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For weeks before my recent screening, I awoke every morning thoroughly convinced I had breast cancer. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe because it was so close to my 52nd birthday. Maybe because I’ve always been a little too vain about my breasts, even though one has a scar and a pocket where two tumors were removed. Maybe because it’s taken me till midlife to embrace my sexuality, and I want to wring every ounce of pleasure from my original parts as long as possible.
Whatever the reason, I sat in the Feng Shui-ed lobby of Pink Lotus, waiting to be told that my life was heading down the wrong street.
If you have to have a nervous breakdown, Pink Lotus is a good place to have one. It’s cozy and boutique-y, with flattering ambient lighting, tasteful wall art, and a team of female, pink-smocked healthcare professionals with the best bedside manner you’ve ever encountered. This setting, and the no-wait policy that enables you to breeze from breast exam to mammogram to ultrasound to results, in my mind, justifies the hefty pricetag.
After pinching every millimeter of breast tissue, the new, effervescent, thirtysomething doctor sat me up and opened my chart. I asked her if I should add an MRI to my breast screening combination plate, since I had a 26% chance of getting cancer. She furrowed her brow, but in a good way.
“Your odds aren’t that high,” she said, flipping through my chart. “12, 12.5%, probably, but not 26%.”
“Really?” I gasped, as the color drained back into my knuckles.
The reasons for my readjusted odds were byzantine and about a mile over my head, but confirmed what I have come to believe about modern medicine: no one really knows anything.
I sailed through the rest of the screening without once reaching for my Xanax, and sailed out of the lobby after the radiologist gave me the thumbs-up. I drove home, ready for a pitcher of margaritas, and grateful that I get to keep my breasts.
At least for another year.