If you are a woman over the age of 40, do you perform self breast cancer exam once a month when your menstrual cycle is just over? Do you go through clinical exams by your doctor once every six months? Do you get mammogram screening once a year?
Aside from the discomfort that comes with breast exams and mammograms, do you experience anxiety, fear and worries when going through the procedures? Join the club.
When I told my doctor several years ago that one of my aunts died of breast cancer in her late 60s, she jotted down something in my chart and immediately passed me a mammogram requisite sheet.
“You should get mammogram screening once a year, because your family history identifies that you are at high risk.”
Albeit knowing she is a very diligent and responsible doctor, her words struck my nerves. Since then, I have gone through several mammograms. After each test, until the results come out several days later, I jump out of my skin whenever the phone rings and cannot sleep at night.
“Except for the mammograms, you should also follow the self-exam guide and examine your breasts once a month,” said my doctor at each physical. “You should know what your breasts feel like so that you can detect any changes, which include shapes and colour.”
I then started a self-imposed breast cancer surveillance routine where I performed breast exams several times a month when I am in the shower, when I sit and when I lie down. And every time I would detect lumps that seemed to have not existed previously, which prompted me to check again and again.
Do they feel like rocks, in random shapes, firm and dense? Do they change with menstrual cycles? Are they something benign or malignant? I become embroiled in never-ending attempts to answer these questions. I have almost had panic attacks.
While the anxieties were relieved by visiting my doctor, who told me that I have to perform the checks closely following the guide, I realized that my judgment was significantly impaired by the fear that had set in.
I told my doctor that I could no longer execute the self-exam routines as I am too scared to check them for fear of what I would find. It is a mental torture that I can no longer endure.
My argument seemed to be backed up by guidelines recently released by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force which said that the self-exams do no good and women should not be taught to do them, because the harms from the false-alarms outweigh the benefits. The guidelines also recommend against women in 40s go through regular mammogram screening.
The new guidelines offer me with a great relief for my stress. So far I have not benefited from this surveillance routine. None of the lumps I detected have raised my doctor’s eyebrows, and if there were cancerous cells ever growing and dividing in my breast, I have not yet been able to detect them through my repeated finger pressing, palm touching and infinite brain loop… I would thank god if the fear and anxiety I suffered would not accelerate the speed they were multiplying themselves.