From the category archives:

Breast Self Examination


My friend Elise, who had breast cancer more than 30 years ago, sends me an email. Back when she had her first breast cancer bout, she was a law student with two young children. She had a mastectomy. No implants. No chemo therapy. No radiation. Now she has discovered something in the breast she has left.

Right away I pick up the phone to call her.

“ I went over to the Magnolia Cancer Center to get a diagnostic mammogram and to see Dr. Guru,” she says.  “He is not overly concerned but wants me to have a biopsy. Told me it would be the medically prudent thing to do.”

She pauses. I am looking for the right words because I can tell she is more worried than she lets on.

“I must admit I am a bit rattled,” says Elise. “Although Guru seems to think it is highly unlikely this is cancer.”

“So did he look you straight in the eye when he told you it is nothing,” I ask Elise. “Or did he avoid eye contact, shuffle the papers or glance at the cell phone as he spoke? Did he say it was “nothing ” or “probably nothing?”

Elise and I speculate over the phone, like two high school girl friends speculating about some boy. Did he really say he likes me? Do you think he will call? Except Elise and I are now two middle-aged women, not two loved-crazed teenagers. And our speculations are not about a boy one of us fancies. It is about the surgeon oncologist we both share. And we are not trying to read tea leaves about love, but about biopsy results before they are in.

We analyze Dr. Guru’s every gesture as he talked to Elise. Every nuance of his demeanor, of his tone of voice, of the words and how he weighed them. Finally, I conclude: Well, Elise, if that is what guru said and if that is the way he said it, then it is from God’s mouth to your ear. Of course you will be OK. He would never say it that way if he wasn’t sure, I tell her.

Elise sounds relieved. I am relived too. I believe what I just told her. But then again – even if I didn’t – I would have told her that  she would be all right. Just as I would have assured her if she had asked: Do you think he will call? Like any   real friend, I would have said: Of course, he will call you. And then if the call never came: “He didn’t call you? How strange. Maybe he lost your number? Maybe he dialed the wrong number, could he have read your 4 as a 9? You write your fours like nines some time. Maybe he is too shy?”

What is even more typical in my friend Elise’s situation, she would speculate with a friend rather than turn to an expert. Her husband is a doctor, he works with guru, and they are practically neighbors. The most logical step, perhaps, would have been to ask her husband to ask Guru if he really thought it was “nothing” or if he was more concerned than he let on. But no, Elise mulls all these scary details over with someone, me, who is probably the least qualified in the world, medically speaking, to give advice. But I will say what she wants to hear.


iStock_000006424577XSmallI. Nobody in my family has breast cancer.

But: Eighty percent of  post-menopausal breast cancer patients do not have a family history.

II. I need to wait until my son’s wedding, my husbands 50th birthday, our 20th anniversary trip/my daughter’s high school graduation/until after my high school reunion.

But: What could have a higher importance than your health?

III. I need to loose twenty pounds. Hate to weigh myself at the doctor’s office.

But:  Mammogram centers don’t weigh you. Be sure you have a digital mammogram. Follow up with your doctor to get the result.  A recent study shows that seven percent of all significant findings don’t get communicated to the patient. No news may not always mean good news. Also, since most cancer does not show on a regular screening mammogram, insist on a diagnostic mammogram if you still have concerns.

IV. Work is crazy busy right now.

But: Won’t get much work done if you end up in hospice.

V. Lumps are usually cysts so no hurry to go now.

But: You cannot tell from the outside. Still check out:

VI. I don’t believe in breast cancer because I have a healthy life style.

But: You will be surprised how many skinny women with healthy life styles end up with breast cancer.

VII. I just had a cancerous mole removed and was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma. I cannot have two cancers at once.

But: some types of cancers puts you at higher risk for a second cancer.

Check your breasts. The life you save may be your own.


A Mysterious Hazelnut in My Boob

June 7, 2009

“Do you perform regular breast examinations?” This is what they always ask at my annual checkups. “Yes,” I always answer with perfect honesty. They never ask how often or how efficiently I do it. The truth is, my “self-examinations” are a series of random pokes and hopeless squeezes. It all feels so lumpy and bumpy in […]

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