Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF).
“Each year it is estimated that over 200,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and more than 40,000 will die,” reports NBCF on their website.
A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast and can be used to detect breast cancer. There are two types of mammograms: a screening mammogram which is used when there are no signs or symptoms of the disease and a diagnostic mammogram which is used after a lump or other sign of the disease is found. A diagnostic mammogram takes longer than a screening mammogram as it allows for multiple views of the breast from several angles.
Not all organizations agree on mammogram guidelines. For example, doctors at the Mayo Clinic offer mammograms to women beginning at age 40 and continuing annually, which is typically yearly. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends biennial (every other year) screening mammograms for women ages 50 to 74 with selective offering of mammograms to those women under age 50 with personal and/or family history of breast cancer.
My mother (also known as Coolest. Mom. Ever.) dreads her yearly mammogram, so I make an appointment for both of us to visit our gynecologist. I drive us the 120 round-trip miles to the doctor’s office. After our appointments, we enjoy some mother-daughter time as we go shopping and have lunch. This year went a differently than planned.
Four days after her appointment, my mom received a phone call from the doctor and was given the news that her screening mammogram showed something questionable. (My mom gave me her blessing to write about her experiences for the purpose of educating others about mammograms.) Her screening mammogram showed a golf ball sized mass in her left breast. The doctor thought, “Cancer,” and referred my mom to a different facility.
I made the follow-up appointment at the diagnostics center for the next business day. Mom had an ultrasound and a scan compression, which is a mammogram taken with a different paddle than a traditional mammogram, done at this appointment. The scan compression allows medical professionals to really hone in on a questionable area and get a really good look at it.
Mom and I made another 120-mile trek, this time to the diagnostics center. We checked in with the perky receptionist, who told my mom she had the option of a 3D scan compression in addition to the standard 2D scan. The receptionist explained the 3D scans allow the breast tissue to be seen in layers, like an onion. Mom and I both thought the 3D scan was an excellent idea, and she paid the additional $60 fee for the 3D scan option.
Next, mom was given the option of having a same day consultation with the doctor at the diagnostics center, again for an extra fee. Initially, mom turned this consultation down knowing her own gynecologist would call her with the results, but after a mere five minutes, my mom decided knowing the results of the scan the same day was worth the extra fee, quoted at between $20 and $80.
I could not go back to the procedure room with my mom. Coolest. Mom. Ever. put on a brave face and went back with the nurse. Her testing and consultation took almost two and a half hours. Mom told me the ultrasound was the scariest part as the technician really dug into her armpit because, again, the thought of a golf ball sized tumor was running this appointment. We were merely along for the ride.
Then mom said she underwent the scan compression mammogram before meeting with the doctor. Mom said the doctor was very professional and patient as she explained the scan results. The doctor put the 2D image up next to the 3D image, and my mom said she was blown away by the huge difference between the two scans.
“It was like looking at night and day,” my mom told me.
The 2D image still showed that golf ball sized mass. The 3D image showed a golf ball sized mass, but without the grainy texture of a cancerous tumor and without the feet, or feelers, of a tumor’s edge. What my mom was looking at in her own scans was a fibrous mass, which is breast tissue of a different texture.
My simple explanation of fibrous breast tissue is that a person looking at a lawn sees a blanket of green, but, when he or she gets up close to the grass the crabgrass is now visible; everything is still green, but the crabgrass has a different texture than the grass around it.
The doctor at the diagnostics lab told my mom that if she had not opted for the 3D scan, then she would have had to undergo a biopsy, which is the removal of a small piece of tissue for laboratory analysis. In the breast, a biopsy is usually performed using a hollow needle that collects samples of the tissue in question. A needle biopsy can be a rather painful procedure.
False-positive results are one of the downsides of the screening mammogram. My mom’s screening mammogram left her with a weekend full of worry and fear and a second visit to a medical office in which a $1,300 ultrasound and an additional 3D mammogram were performed in addition to an extra consultation with a doctor. Not every woman with a false-positive result can afford the additional medical bills and additional time off work associated with more testing.
My mother has private insurance which does not cover 3D mammograms until age 65. Since the diagnostics center recommended my mom have a yearly 3D scan instead of the standard 2D scan for the sake of having a better view of any potential changes to the fibrous breast mass found this year, she will be paying the extra fee for the 3D mammogram until the insurance covers this service for her. The extra $60 is worth every penny because the peace of mind that comes with the 3D scan helps my mom, myself and the rest of our family sleep better at night.
Coolest. Mom. Ever. recommends women, regardless of age, start getting a yearly mammogram when their health care professionals recommend and to not be afraid to ask for the 3D scan in cases where personal history with cancer exists.
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