My name is Elizabeth Thornhill, and I have been a mammographer at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York for 14 years and worked at the Breast Examination Center of Harlem for the past 6 years.
My journey started in 2011. I went for my yearly mammogram at the same mammography facility that I have gone to for years. I know all of the mammographers there well, especially Betty, who did my mammogram. (Although I am a mammographer myself, I am a private person, so I prefer not to have my tests done at work.) I am also very inquisitive and usually peek at the screen, but Betty was very careful not to let me see anything, so I had an uneasy feeling.
As Betty put me back in the waiting room, she told me that I might need to have additional pictures and an ultrasound. Since I have done this before, I tried to think the best. But being human, my mind was racing, and I flashed back to a dream I had in college that was so real I had bolted up with my heart pounding. In the dream, I had breast cancer. Ever since, each time I went for a mammogram, I would hold my breath, as this dream was so real. I had always wondered if there was meaning to it; now I was about to find out.
My radiologist came in to do the ultrasound, focusing on an area close to the axilla. He asked me if I felt anything, which I didn't; my other doctors hadn't either. I have assisted in U/S breast biopsies and knew what to look for on the U/S screen. I saw the area he was scanning, and it was a solid mass, not a cyst. I knew that wasn't good. He proceeded to do an U/S guided needle biopsy. At this time, I was worried and not very hopeful.
It took two weeks for my worst fears to be confirmed-- a horrible two weeks. I was getting doubtful about the facility since it was taking so long, but I received a call that the radiologist only used one pathologist at the lab and s/he was on vacation. Two days before Thanksgiving, while I was at work, I got a call from the radiologist that the biopsy was positive. I had invasive carcinoma.
I was so surprised and disappointed that after I had waited so long for the results, the radiologist called to tell me over the phone that I had breast cancer. I don't know what I expected, but this was not it. I guess he had to tell me as quickly as possible, but I thought it was very cold to tell me over the phone at work. Fortunately, I was at a mammo center, and my colleagues knew I was waiting for a biopsy report. They were all rooting for me and hoping it was nothing, and they were very supportive during this time. I think I was a little in shock, but they were there for me, so I am very lucky to have those colleagues at the Breast Examination Center.
I called to make an appointment with a well-known breast surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, as I knew of his good reputation. My husband and I went in to see him soon after Thanksgiving weekend, where he went over the slides and mammogram and confirmed that I had Stage I invasive carcinoma. He felt my lymph nodes and did not feel any swelling, so he felt there was no lymph node involvement, although he wouldn't know until the sentinel node biopsy came back. He said I was a healthy cancer patient. Cancer is so silent a disease in the beginning. We scheduled the lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy for December 1. He did not think I would need chemotherapy, just radiation on the lumpectomy site.
But nothing goes as planned. He did not get clear margins on the first go-round and would have to do another lumpectomy to get clear borders. He kept saying, "I don't think we'll have to do a mastectomy," which shocked me. I was wondering where the word "mastectomy" had suddenly come from. So I underwent a second surgery; the borders came through clear, and the lymph node was negative. However, even though my cancer was Stage I, it fell toward the aggressive side of the chemo scale. They decided I would need chemo, but not quite as aggressive as a more severe grade tumor would require. I was not supposed to lose my hair or have vomiting --maybe some nausea. I would just need the day of the chemo off and maybe the next day.
Of course, I ended up losing my hair, and my stomach and taste buds were so badly affected that I couldn't get anything down to drink. It's important to drink when you have chemo, as chemo can adversely affect the kidneys. But drinking was awful. I'm a big water drinker; I cannot tolerate any carbonated drinks or some juices. I don't know why or how, but suddenly water tasted awful. I couldn't drink it. I tried Gatorade, but that wasn't helping. It became such a problem that I ended up in the ER for dehydration during my third chemo treatment. I gained weight, as I was compensating by eating. Again, I am thankful I work with such wonderful people. My colleagues really supported me when I had to take more time off. They helped me buy a beautiful, real hair wig for a reasonable price (which, unfortunately, I could never get used to wearing, so hats became my thing). Chemo came to an end in August, and I was on my way to radiation.
I am doing radiation now. I do it after hours so as not to interfere with my work -- every night, M-F, for 5 weeks. It seems to be working; the breast doesn't hurt, and I'm not too tired.
The journey is never over. The next step is tamoxifen, as my tumor was estrogen positive. I worry about hot flashes, as I am getting some now, and I hear they are one of the bad side-effects of tamoxifen. I may be wearing my summer shirts to work this winter! However, this is a small price to pay if it keeps me cancer-free.
My message is that mammograms save lives. I did not have any symptoms. I ate well, I exercised, I had no family history, and I had two clinical breast exams that were negative in the past 10 months. If I had not kept my appointment for my routine screening mammogram, I hate to think where I would be today. Today, I am back in control of my life and am a standing example of how mammograms save lives.