Four years ago I went in for a regularly scheduled mammogram. My doctors started screening me when I was 35 since my mother had a history of breast cancer. The test went off without any fanfare and I left the pink patient gown in the changing room, and went back to work. The next day, I got a call from the diagnostic imaging center asking me to come back in for more pictures.
“Nothing to worry about dear,” said the woman who did the scheduling. “This is quite normal, just routine.” When the technician finished taking more pictures, she escorted Joe and me into a small windowless room with a round table and four chairs. On the center of the table was a box of tissues. She asked us to have a seat and told us the doctor would be with us soon. With wide eyes, I stared at the box of tissues, then back at Joe. Instantly, my mouth dried up and my hands began to sweat. Joe reached for my clammy hand and tried to reassure me it was nothing. The doctor came in carrying a large envelope with the recently taken images in it. He got straight to the point.
“I see some micro-calcifications on your mammogram, and because of your mother’s history with breast cancer, I want to biopsy them.” He took out the images and showed me the tiny dots on the film.
“Is there a tumor?” I asked.
“No.” he said. “In some cases these micro-calcifications turn out to be a pre-cancerous growth in the milk ducts and we need to investigate that. It is highly treatable and curable, but first we need to remove a few cells and test them.” I looked at Joe and the box of tissues and took in a deep breath. “Okay,” I said. I wouldn’t need the tissues today.
“First we need to find out what this is, and really, how much harm can a few teeny tiny little dots cause?” the voice in my head reasoned. Before we left, the doctor handed me some pamphlets explaining how the biopsy would be conducted, plus a card with the scheduled appointment on it. I immediately called my mom and told her the news. Having had a similar mammogram 20 years prior, she’d undergone a unilateral mastectomy, the cancer was gone, and she was declared cured. So of course she was empathetic, assuring me that even if those little dots were cancerous cells, I’d have a similar experience and everything would be fine.
On the day of the needle biopsy, I was overly anxious. I changed dutifully into the familiar pink patient gown and was taken into a small, warm mammography room. They explained that in order to isolate the area where the biopsy needle would be inserted, they would have to position my breast in the mammogram machine. Once positioned, they said, the doctor will come in and insert a long needle and withdraw some tissue samples. The whole thing should be over quickly, they said, and the numbing agent should help with the discomfort.
The positioning took a long time. The little bastard dots were hiding out in an area that kept eluding the technician. When she brought in another technician to help, that little warm room was suddenly crowded, and I was just as suddenly claustrophobic. My A-cup breast didn’t help matters; there just wasn’t a lot to work with. While one tech pushed my little breast down onto the machine’s plastic plate to make it spread out more, the other tech looked at the monitor. They moved my head this way, then that. They moved my arms this way, then that. Meanwhile, the mean machine squeezed my breast ever-more tightly while I struggled to remain standing. Finally the doctor came in and without even saying hello or my name, he picked up a large and imposing needle, and inserted it into my squashed breast. I began to lose consciousness, and slurred out something like, “I’m going down.” The technician scrambled to release my breast from the machine’s grip, and the doctor withdrew the needle. I felt myself sliding towards the floor just before I blacked out.