On June the 19th, 2013, I had my first free mammogram with BreastScreen NSW at Gosford Hospital. At 51, I’d been entitled to a free test for over a year. The month before, while I was travelling with my daughter, I’d noticed a dull pain in my left breast. Nothing much. I thought I might have strained a muscle lifting my luggage. When the pain kept recurring I commented to my husband that I should probably have it checked, but I wasn’t particularly worried about it. When the letter came in the mail offering me a free breast screen I thought it was good timing.
On the Wednesday the 19th of June, 2013, I turned up at BreastScreen and had a pleasant afternoon with the very cheerful, friendly staff. I’d had a mammogram several years before after developing mastitis while I was breast feeding and the experience hadn’t been pleasant. In contrast, the technician at BreastScreen was kind, friendly, patient and very good at putting me at ease. My breasts are fairly large and my breast tissue extends under my arms so a mammogram was never going to be comfortable, but this lovely woman took time to make sure I was properly positioned in the machine. I can remember her repositioning my left breast when she wasn’t happy. Some days you just get lucky.
When they send you a letter asking you to come back to BreastScreen for further tests they include a brochure that’s meant to be reassuring; 90% of people called back don’t have breast cancer. If you know anything about maths, you quickly figure out that you’ve got one chance in 10 of having it. I still wasn’t worried. I assumed they’d found some odd looking tissue thanks to my previous mastitis. Neither of my breasts felt lumpy.
The first thing that struck me when I saw the slide that resulted in my call back was how lucky I’d been. There was a little white star right up against the edge of the slide for my left breast. If the technician had gone with the first set up for my mammogram it would have been missed. Thanks to her professionalism and her commitment to taking the best possible image, she’d captured a triple negative breast cancer at 10 o’clock. At the time of writing I’m still fighting this cancer, but whatever chance I have at a longer life I owe to this wonderful woman. If she’d been rushed or cared less I would now be walking around with a highly aggressive cancer and a negative test from BreastScreen, oblivious to the danger until the cancer had become obvious.
The rest of my call back at BreastScreen involved watching the joyful 90% emerge from their further tests with big smiles and sighs of relief. When they moved me out of the queue and saved me for last I had a fair idea I was part of the 10%. The ultrasound showed three tumours joined together like a string of fuzzy beads. The doctor’s face said ‘cancer’ even though she was non-committal. Three fine needle and two core biopsies later and I spent and anxious week waiting for the news I knew was coming.
On Wednesday the 10th of July my husband and I were informed that I had a ‘more unusual and aggressive’ triple negative breast cancer. I’d never heard of it. I didn’t even know there were different types of breast cancer. It was the start of a journey that I hope ends with my full recovery and a long and happy life. Welcome to my journey.