Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Beyond Pink Ribbons:
What I Did Yesterday To Prevent Breast Cancer

I went hardcore patient yesterday and scheduled an insane number of doctors appointment (two) and medical tests (two.)

Thank goodness my husband came with me all day long too and served as my chauffeur--a task he truly abhors--as well.  We got started at 10:30 a.m.; he was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and me, well, not so much.  I was praying to get through the day with the insanely small amount of sleep I was able to catch the night before.  What a team we made!

I had no idea that during the course of the day I was going to be given a choice to make a real difference in the fight against breast cancer.

Yes, one of my appointments was for my yearly mammogram.  If you are a well-endowed woman like me, you know that getting your yearly mammogram can be quite uncomfortable.  I always get a little flare-up of my intercostal muscle pain afterwards (that's pain caused by your rib muscles.)  Plus the girls aren't too thrilled about getting squished like that either.  And I mean, they get really flattened...

But this year it was different too.

I discovered that UCLA is participating in a program called the Athena Breast Health Network.  The researchers believe that the key to breast health is in each woman's story and they are asking us to share our health stories with them so they can get closer to true prevention and a true cure for breast cancer.

First, I was given an iPad and asked to fill out a questionnaire that took about 15 minutes.  It probably wouldn't have taken so long if I knew how to use an iPad!  (Yeah, I'm one of those people who don't own or ever use one!)  I left my reading glasses with Robert and I didn't know you could zoom in and make the text bigger with your fingers.  I also could have really used a stylus to tap on the screen to more accurately select my answers.

They asked a lot of questions about the health history of my family and myself.  I don't have any female relatives that I know of who have ever had breast cancer, so perhaps that made the questionnaire easier to complete.  They did ask if anyone in my family had leukemia before the age of 40.  Now that was a red flag for me since I am Miss I Survived Leukemia at the age of 22.  So when I turned my iPad in, I asked the research assistant present if there was an emerging link between the two.  They said no.

I Googled it when I got home and found this article on Medscape: Risk of Second Malignant Neoplasms After Childhood Leukemia and Lymphoma. I am going to follow up with a question to my cancer suvivorship team at the UCLA Livestrong Survivorship Center for Excellence as well.

One of the questions that they asked on the questionnaire was whether you were willing to give the researchers a small sample of saliva or blood.  Of course I said yes.  So when I turned in my iPad I was given a 8 1/2 by 11 laminated sheet of paper to hold that I guess was to signal the staff of my choice.  I sat back down, listened to the utterances of lady next to me as she struggled with using her iPad to answer the questions and then looked around and noticed that I was the only one with that special piece of paper.

Huh?!? I thought to myself.  No one else volunteered to give a sample?

For a split second I almost regretted my decision.  Then I rationalized that, with my crazy medical history, I was probably not the ideal candidate for analysis.  I half expected that my sample might get thrown out based on those facts alone. But after those fleeting thoughts, I decided that since I said yes, I wasn't going to back out.  Especially since no one else appeared to be stepping up and joining me.

I got escorted back into the changing area and shown to a booth so I could get into a gown.  My instructions were to place the opening to the front.  This is, of course, my second least favorite part of getting a mammogram.  The gowns are always too small for my bosoms, so I inevitable have to wear two gowns, one opening in front and one over that opening to the back, to keep the girls covered so there isn't an accidental unveiling before I get to the mammography room.

As I stepped out of the booth, I was almost handed yet another one of those 8 1/2 by 11 special flyers.  I declined it, showing the nurse I already had one.  They must be super excited that I volunteered, I thought to myself.

"Come in here then and let's get your sample," she said with a smile.

Luckily for me, I only had to give a saliva sample.  Not that giving a blood sample would have been horrible.  Heck, I am giving blood samples to the lab at least four times a year and sometimes they are taking up to 6 tubes of blood at a time.  Giving saliva, in comparison, seems like a piece of cake.  In reality, between trying to keep my gown in place and coaxing my chronically dry mouth into producing enough saliva, the experience was a little gawky and ungraceful.  But I managed it.

I asked if they would test my sample for the breast cancer gene and was told no.  Apparently I won't be hearing about any results from the sample I just gave them.  But that's O.K.  I get the satisfaction of knowing I am helping advance medical science...IF they find my sample usable.  

Then it was on to the mammography room and the Selenia digital mammography machine.  It is strange that I find it a bit comforting that something that shares the spelling of my name takes the pictures?  The tech assisting me was the same one from last year.  I filled the awkwardness in the room with chat about how my husband and I bought an indoor electric turkey fryer and would be using it for the first time this Thanksgiving to prepare our bird.

Four views later, I left the room promising to let her know how the turkey turned out when I come back next year.

I headed back to the booth, changed out of the gowns, put my clothes on and headed out.  The whole visit took less than 30 minutes.

Sure, I'm always I little anxious about the results, but they come in the mail a few weeks later.  In the meantime, I'll put on my best Scarlett O'Hara face: I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow.

The real difference this time is I got to walk away feeling like, in a very small way, I might be helping one of my 'sisters' prevent or beat breast cancer because I chose to participate in a research study.

I'm not the only one making a difference.  You can participate too!  Simply schedule your next mammogram at one of these participating University of California Medical Centers: UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC San Diego or UC San Francisco.  Visit the Athena Breast Health Network website for more information.

Oh, and please consider volunteering to help medical research whenever you are presented an opportunity to do so.

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