Mammogram Anxiety

I have “extremely dense breasts.” About 10% of people with breasts fall into this category, and for me, this means that I now have a mammogram and an ultrasound every year, instead of just the obligatory mammogram. When I first started getting mammograms, they’d always call me back for an ultrasound, and eventually, they agreed to just do both in the same appointment to save us all the trouble. Having higher breast density increases the risk of cancer because it’s difficult to spot abnormalities, but I have no family history of breast cancer, so I don’t worry about this too much. I’m accustomed to the routine now. In the first few years, they always stressed me out, and I can only imagine how having family history would increase that anxiety.

I can’t see the mammography images as they’re taken, and I no longer ask to, but I always watch the monitor throughout the ultrasound. I’m used to technicians stopping repeatedly to measure lots and lots of cysts – and this year’s screening was the first time I can remember that there were none – not a single one. I left feeling pretty excited that I must be doing something right to see such a drastically positive result. Maybe it was because I quit dieting. Maybe it was because I quit coffee (though I didn’t give up caffeine – just switched from coffee to tea). Maybe it was the result of a consistent yoga practice. Maybe it was all of those things. Awesome, right?

Like I said, I don’t worry much about these annual screenings anymore… until about a week and a half ago, when I got a call back for second round of images. When they called to schedule the follow-up, I asked why, and the scheduling representative seemed surprised at my question. They could only tell me that it was “probably” an unclear or blurry image, and that this was common.

Um, not so common for me… and that “probably” wasn’t totally reassuring.

My mindfulness meditation practice has made a huge impact on my ability to manage unproductive thinking – to catch my worried thoughts and redirect them. It kept me from going down a rabbit-hole of catastrophic thoughts as the follow-up appointment approached – up until this morning.

The entire reason I have that ultrasound every year is because they can’t really tell what’s going on in the mammogram. So if they called me back, they must’ve seen something specific. But maybe I just shifted or breathed at the wrong time and it was nothing more than a blurry image – but the technician probably would’ve seen that at the time, so it must be a thing.

Stop. Just stop.

Your thoughts are just thoughts. Just because you think something does not make it real. Nothing bad is actually happening to you in this moment.

In hindsight, I think I hadn’t wanted to give voice to the possibility that this could be cancer. I knew that was highly unlikely. I didn’t tell anyone I was concerned about it. I hadn’t really thought about why I kept it to myself until today, but in the same way I didn’t want to empower the possibility in my own mind, I didn’t want to empower it in anyone else’s, either. I didn’t want to be supported and comforted – I wanted to operate like there wasn’t a problem, because there wasn’t one. If there was going to be a problem, it was in the future, and I there was nothing I could do to control that in the present.

I questioned myself about that rationale after my follow-up this morning. Had I been overly stoic, refusing to reach out for support when I needed it? I do that sometimes.

I don’t think that was the case this time, though. This time I needed to not be dragged back into worry by others’ support or sympathy. I didn’t want to be reminded that this was likely nothing, because that would only remind me of the possibility it might also be something.

But this morning I couldn’t keep that mental catastrophizing entirely under control. What if this actually turned out to be cancer? I thought about the people I’ve known that have had breast cancer – how strong they’ve been – how they got through it. Even if I got bad news, it would be okay, I thought. I thought about the commitments I’d probably need to give up over the coming months. I thought about whether there was any possibility I’d be able to finish yoga teacher training. I wondered how sick I’d be and how much work I’d miss. I thought about how many people had been in this same place – physically, mentally, and emotionally – before me.

Stop. Just stop.

Your thoughts are just thoughts. Just because you think something does not make it real. Nothing bad is actually happening to you in this moment.

It was harder to manage those thoughts today, but at least I’d know more by mid-morning. When they brought me into the room for my follow-up mammogram this morning, they showed me a small spot deep in my left breast – a place you’d never catch in a self-exam.

I thought, “this is bad.”

Stop. Just stop. Your thoughts are not real.

Two more pictures, then back to the waiting room to wait for a second ultrasound. A few minutes more, and the technician came back to get me, and brought me back to the same room. More mammography images? What does that mean? Why not the expected ultrasound? This must be bad.

Stop. Just stop.

The technician closed the door and told me the second mammogram looked fine, and the spot in the original image was just, “overlapping tissue.”

Mental silence – ok – thank you – walk back to car – burst into tears of relief. How had I not realized until today that I was that worried? Worried enough to be that relieved? Had I been that worried? Maybe I just got this worried today, when I wasn’t able to manage my thinking as well as I had in the preceding days. I think that’s exactly what happened. Maybe it was actually mindfulness success that I was able to remain relatively unconcerned until today.

A few years ago I probably would’ve kept this story to myself. I would have been ashamed of my own anxiety – of appearing “weak.” I would’ve believed it was selfish and indulgent, since I’d walked away with good news. There was nothing to tell. My half day of anxiety hardly compares to the experience of someone who’s gotten bad news, then navigated treatments and family and work and life. This was tiny, comparatively.

But part of the reason for this blog is being more open and vulnerable in the world, and if I had this experience today, I can only imagine how many people have had similar experiences before me, and many of them probably kept it to themselves, too. So, in the interest of satya (truthfulness) and ahimsa (non-harming) I’m sharing it with the world. I think the truthfulness aspect of is clear, but the non-harming aspect perhaps less so. In this case, I mean that silence sometimes does harm. When we’re closed and invulnerable with the people around us, we don’t encourage openness and vulnerability in them. When we open ourselves, and allow for our own vulnerability, we create spaces for others to do the same in our presence, and that’s very much the kind of human I want to be.

Featured image by Michael Drummond from Pixabay

#fullymyself #mammogramssavelives

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