What It's Really Like to Get a Biopsy
The day starts like any other day in quarantine except it's time for my bi-annual mammogram. I have what doctors call extreme dense breast tissue, so I need a mammogram and an ultrasound mammogram every year. This is a routine appointment and I plan to drive through Starbucks on my way home. I can almost taste the sweet decaf vanilla latte on my tongue. My mammogram looked good earlier this year, so this was just a stop along the way to breakfast.
I pull up to the women's imaging center, read all of the COVID-related notifications on the door, slip my mask over my nose and mouth and go inside. After a quick temperature check, some paperwork and brief wait in the lobby I'm on my way to the changing room and then another waiting room. I have a chat with a local ER nurse who is also there for a routine check-up. She’s had both COVID vaccinations and I’m so glad for her.
A nurse calls her name. A quick goodbye and she's gone. After another brief wait, a different nurse comes to get me. She is so sweet. We chat about virtual school and parenting during a pandemic. It’s the first adult conversation I’ve had in months.
When she finishes the imaging she says a radiologist will review my file and I’ll have my results before I leave the office. I get dressed and wait.
She returns with the radiologist within minutes who tells me there is a small mass in my left breast.
I completely forget about getting a latte. My ears shut off and my eyes go blank. Their mouths make words and I nod feigned comprehension. Someone will call me to schedule a biopsy later in the day.
What is a biopsy?
A core needle biopsy is a medical procedure used to remove a small sample of breast tissue for laboratory testing. It's a way to evaluate a suspicious area in the breast and determine whether or not it's breast cancer. Most of the information online will tell you that a biopsy is a fast, relatively painless procedure that doesn't even require general anesthesia. After months of living in quarantine, helping my kids with virtual school and deciding what's for dinner, it almost sounds like a vacation. Almost.
My biopsy is scheduled for the following week. I don't know how other women react to a seven day wait between appointments to find out whether they have breast cancer, but I spend the next week in a state of disquietude.
Since the procedure sounds fairly innocuous, I spend the next several days flip flopping between stress, anxiety, panic attacks, migraines and worry.
The day of my biopsy
My alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m. and to my surprise, I've slept well. I decide to snooze a bit longer because I’m not ready for this. I’m in the shower twenty minutes later and twenty minutes after that I’m dressed and as ready as I’ll ever be.
My husband is awake and I can tell he feels helpless. He offers to drive me to my appointment, but that would mean waking the kids. Visitors are not allowed at the center so I tell him I'll drive myself and let him know as soon as I'm finished.
Thanks to COVID I've no choice but to do this next part alone.
I arrive on time, don my face mask and go inside. They take my temperature again but this time I notice how little eye contact there is with the admitting nurse. My body shakes. A few tears roll silently behind my mask as I give them an electronic signature. The nurse doesn't seem to notice and I'm not sure if I'm relieved or not. I’m not sure what I just signed, but it gets me to the next part. I just want this to be over. I’m guided back to the dressing room. Everyone’s wearing a mask, no one is making eye contact. No one is exchanging pleasantries. I. feel. so. alone.
I don’t want to wait anymore. After I'm in my sage green wrap shirt, a nurse directs me to the diagnostic waiting room. I wait for someone to call my name and it’s the same nurse as last week. A familiar face. That’s something.
She offers me a chair. I sit. She goes over everything I’ll experience and need to know in detail. Bless her heart. She lets me hear the sound of the tool the doctor will use. It’s loud. Like, unnervingly loud. It sounds like a drill. She asks if I have any questions so many times I feel bad for not having any.
She preps the table. I remove my left arm from my wrap and lay down. She places a wedge under my left side. She wants me to know it’s there to make sure I’m in a good position. Am I comfortable? No, but I say I am when she asks. She preps the ultrasound wand. We wait for what seems like an eternity, but was probably only a minute or two. I’m shaking.
The doctor comes in, introduces himself and washes his hands. I can’t see him because I’m laying down and my masks obscures my field of vision. I didn't catch his name but I'm sure it will be on the paperwork. She raises the table into position and quickly positions the ultrasound wand. Almost too quickly. They know EXACTLY where to look.
This is the part that surprises me the most. After a quick cleanse and pinch of numbing solution he begins the procedure almost immediately. "Wait", I think to myself, "Doesn’t it take longer to numb my body?" It's too late. The loud drill starts and I realize this is NOT a gentle procedure. I try not to move but it feels like he’s pumping something out of me. It feels almost violent. It doesn’t hurt thank goodness, but I know it will later. The procedure only takes a minute or two, but it seems to last forever. Once he's finished he hands everything over to the nurse, says a solemn, "Best of luck to you," and leaves.
I die a little bit inside and wonder,
"Do they already know if I have cancer?"
The nurse gently cleanses my skin and applies a butterfly bandage, gauze and another bandage. She tells me it’s time for another mammogram. When you have a biopsy they place a titanium marker inside your body so they can quickly identify the location of your biopsy in the future, but they need pictures.The nurse assures me it won't hurt because I'm numb.
I place my arm back into the wrap shirt and follow a new nurse to the mammography room. Thankfully I’m still numb as they take three images.
I return to the dressing room and gladly pull my clothes back over my head. I wrap my oversized scarf around my body like a shield, open the door and head straight for the exit. I’m in and out in an hour and 20 minutes. I call my husband and go straight home to bed.
Now I wait. Again. They tell me it will be another 5 days before my results are ready. For anyone counting, that's 13 days I spend worrying whether I will get to see my children graduate high school, or get married, or have children. At times, it is too much for this mama.
After 24 hours, the pain subsides and I catch up on the dishes and laundry. My emotions swing wildly as I try to maintain my composure but I know everyone in my house is on edge.
Late afternoon on the 13th day I see a MyChart alert on my phone. My husband is napping, my kids are watching TV. My results are in.
Thankfully my story ends here.
My results are benign.
If you or a loved one is feeling anxious or depressed while awaiting test results, here are a few things that may help ease your worry:
Don't assume the worst Our brains are wired to fixate on negative thoughts and emotions, especially when we have no control of the outcome. Try to focus on something that makes you feel happy—as difficult as it may be when so much is uncertain.
Talk to friends and family Sharing negative emotions, worry or stress with someone you trust can be profoundly healing.
Stick to your daily routine and keep busy Staying busy can help you feel a little more in control and help keep you from assuming the worst.
Exercise Though it may be difficult to feel motivated, exercise is a great way to alleviate stress and improve mental health. When you exercise, the brain releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins throughout the body.
Practice mindfulness Do your best to stay in the present moment. Try slowing your breathing to ease unpleasant symptoms and stay calm. Find a comfortable place to sit and try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
This experience has taught me what I value most: Family, friends, health and creating a life without regrets.
I come away with a few simple takeaways. I'll do my best to live by them and encourage you do do the same:
Get an annual mammogram, it could save your life
Don't worry what other people think
Take care of yourself, your family and be a good friend
Focus on your dreams and just go for it