The Benign Good News

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one woman explains her breast biopsy experience and urges others to get checked

by francine g. burke

"we saw something in your films." these are the most-dreaded words after your tits have gone through pancakeville. it was finally explained to me that breasts, cysts, fibrous tissue and the like will flatten under the x-ray machine and cancer doesn't. good old big "c" is so strong it can withstand the scrunch like a cockroach. the sharpie mark on my breast is where the machine is going to drill.

approximately 12.7 percent of women born today will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives: that's about 1 in 8 women. and all you dudes better man up and get in touch with yourselves! as on a recent episode of csi, the coroner couldn't identify some sticky plastic with a metal dot. it was a not-so subliminal television message that guys are clueless about the mammography. the metal ball is a nipple marker, a little band-aid with a metal tip. the metal shows up in the x-ray so technicians can see where and what they are looking for. pulling them off after the test just may be the worst part of the annual ordeal... that is, when the test is negative. when even my hero peter criss, the former drummer of kiss, can get boob cancer, you know that it can happen to anyone.

the radiologist poked at the white dots on my x-ray with his pointer. they're not concerned about the little calcium deposits that are scattered on the fi lms of my fibrocystic breasts, but this is a cluster and it's necessary to have a biopsy. my mind ran in a hundred directions and my eyes watered, so i fought the tears with a stream of intellectualizing. i badgered the doctor with questions: "what's the difference between calcium dots and a cluster? and why is one dangerous but not the other? so if it is early detection, it can be isolated right? a little radiation, keep my hair and good to go, 'cause i haven't met my second husband yet and need my tits and my hair. they are my best features!"

i think the doctor wanted to slap me silent, but, instead, asked me quietly to stop getting ahead of myself. i was given an appointment and a list of stuff to stay away from (like anything that interfered with blood clotting) and didn't realize just how much i missed my aspirin!

the procedure, called a stereotactic breast biopsy, was scheduled a week later. i am again a part of the bland, scratchy robe-wearing procession of women. but this time, as they are getting routine annual check-ups, i keep my mind distracted by reading crappy, outdated golf, parents and elle magazines, and make a note to self not to pay too much attention to the 2005 fashions until shivka, a lovely, prematurely gray-haired woman with kind eyes and fi rm voice, calls me to the special room.

the table has a hole in the middle; it rises up so they can work on the spot at eye level. my left tit is milked, prodded, poked and, yes, fl attened again. the room and plastic table are freezing. i whine and shivka covers me with several blankets. she continues to yank and squish and shoots more films but cannot get a clear shot of where they have to get the biopsy sample.

dr. shack arrives, walking around the table, and he looks so short, stern and emotionless that it's pretty darn disconcerting. they lower the table and tell me it's an older machine, and they want me to go to another lab a few blocks away that is equipped with a newer, state-of-the art machine. when the table is lowered, i'm surprised to see the "short" doctor is over 6 feet tall.

the nurse and doctor gather all the supplies they could possibly need-not knowing what would be available to them at the new place-and the doctor never changes his expression, instructing shivka to take the walk with me to the lab. she seems insecure, not knowing the new machine, but is happy to get out of the lab in the warm sunshine.

armed with manila envelopes filled with anesthesia, alcohol, ice packs, needles, bandages and more, i feel special, having a medical entourage escorting me from west 59th street and columbus avenue to 58th street and broadway. while we trundle over, i listen to shivka tell me about her husband and three sons. arriving at the new lab, we are welcomed and the magazines are current. the table is prewarmed.

i have four additional women leading, prepping, poking and prodding me, and the lab technicians compare notes and teach each other their "way" with much respect. i am the benefi ciary of all of their great experience. with a total of five women and the doctor taking care of my needs, there's probably over 100 years of know-how in the room.

when they're confident that all is ready, they mark the spot, the table is raised again and i'm locked into place by my left udder, er, breast, and i try to ignore the metal squeezing against my breast bone and ribs.

"you'll hear a clap that will indicate the pinch of the needle is coming for the anesthesia," the doctor says. and i hear what sounds like two plastic pieces on a tight spring slapping together. i am warned that i will then hear a "whirring" sound when the tool starts excavating.

unfortunately, the doc didn't shoot me up with enough anesthesia and there's a "whirrrr" and pain! i scream and nearly jump out of the confi nes of their grip and off the table. "whirrr!" pain again! i cry for them to stop and with all of the tension and anxiety that has built up from the time i heard i needed the biopsy, i start sobbing like a baby.

shivka gripped my leg and sternly told me to hold still while another nurse, michelle, walks around the table and dabs the tears from my eyes. it's the lab assistant version of good cop/bad cop, i figure. i'm so afraid to hear the whirr again and cry out: "please no, please no, stop stop stop!" they shoot me with a large dose of additional anesthesia, and it kicks in and the doctor, confident and pleased, informs me he's gotten the sample he needed. "it went very well."

all the women stand around me, instructing me on post-procedural care while i dress. michelle absently-mindedly evens-out the string in my hoodie, telling me how great i did. dr. stack, still emotionless, pushes his card into my hand and says, "call me tomorrow, so i can tell you it's benign."

dr. stack's confident diagnosis held true, and i'm happy to say that i did, indeed, get the benign good news. just days later, i found out a good friend was not so fortunate and scheduled the next step, a ductal carcinoma in. but i'm glad both of us got our checkup, and i continue to spread the word: with early detection, non-invasive procedures can lead to full recovery.

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