Walking into the waiting area, felt like being led into a hidden world of mystery–but not the good kind.
While my surroundings were pleasant, with all the creature comforts, a private changing area, a place to secure my personal belongings, women’s magazines, HGTV on the television, comfortable chairs and even snacks and beverages. We waited for the door to open for each of us.
A room full of women… and no one spoke. There was barely eye contact. The door opened and the mystery began to unfold for one of us. We didn’t have to wait long, but I’m sure for some, it seemed like an eternity.
The door opened again. It was my turn to discover what was on the other side. I was about to have my first mammogram.
I don’t know about you, but having my breasts pulled and smashed is not my idea of fun to begin with. Being told to relax, to breathe, to hold still, then to hold your breath. I felt like a kid on her first day of kindergarten…Being instructed and at the mercy of a complete stranger, wondering what will happen next.
Luckily for me, I worked in healthcare for 20 years. I understand how the system works, I understand what “must be done”, and I understand that patients are vulnerable…ALL THE TIME.
Nobody enjoys being vulnerable, laid bare, without defense, but that is what diagnostics require. That is what they do. They search out what is hidden and bring it to light. (hopefully!)
It didn’t take long, the technician, an assertive middle-aged woman, was quick and had me out in a few minutes. Back to the waiting area to wait for an ultrasound once the radiologist read the mammogram images. A mere 10 minutes later, I was on the other side of the door again with the ultrasound techs (two of them) having a breast ultrasound to determine the nature of the small lump that I felt.
Knowing all that I know about how the healthcare system works, I knew that the techs wouldn’t “give anything away”. Their facial expressions left no indications as they searched for the images that would tell the story. When they were done, they marched out to share “with the doctor” saying that he would be in to see me shortly to discuss.
I sat alone in that room, prayed, and wondered…Will this part be quick? Am I about to discover something that could change my life in significant ways? Am I prepared for this?
As the doctor walked in to introduce himself 3 minutes later, I felt certain that he had an answer for me. He introduced himself and said “Well, Mrs. Carper, there’s good news for you today.” I suspect he’s relieved every time he gets to speak that phrase. “What you felt is a simple cyst.”. He said something about draining it if it begins to bother me, but I was already about to get out of my chair and head out when he asked, “Any questions?”. I answered before he even finished asking. “Can I leave now?” He and the technicians all laughed and showed me the door.
I’m filled with gratitude as I write this. You see, you don’t yet know that I am considered high risk for breast cancer…I’m a woman who has two close relatives—an aunt and 1st cousin– diagnosed with breast cancer, I’ve never had children of my own, I started my period when I was 10, and I also drank a lot of wine in my 30’s (I’m not proud of this, just a lifestyle risk factor that I must share if I’m being honest.). I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet. While I feel grateful and happy, my heart is heavy for the women who haven’t or won’t share my experience and get that “good news”.
One thing is certain, though. I will not dwell on any of this. I will continue to pursue health, hormone balance and breast health. I will continue to advocate for and help women make choices that will empower them and build health….And, I will NOT worry about the “next time”, or the “what if’s” that the future holds. It’s just not helpful and certainly not the place I choose to live.
I have officially entered the ranks of women who have discovered breasts lumps and been led through the process of diagnostics. My journey was brief and overall very positive and I’d like to share a few reasons I believe this to be so.
1) Knowing My Body– First and foremost, I know my body. I have a good relationship with it. I communicate with it. I listen to it, and I care for it daily. I notice changes, big and small, on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis…and I take note. I don’t ignore what my body shares with me. I TRUST my body. I trust that my body is always telling me things that I need to know. So, I pay attention.
While this reason seems shorter than the others I share here, make no mistake, this plays a huge part and can be a woman’s greatest asset in building her health.
2) Understanding Human Anatomy & Physiology– I have a deep knowledge of anatomy & physiology. The foundations of my training and my years of experience as a dietitian in healthcare provided me with an in-depth knowledge of how the body works. My training in holistic and functional medicine principles also helps me to understand how the systems of the body work together and impact one another. This knowledge is invaluable in the work that I do for myself and other women I help.
When I have a medical concern it is easy for me to search out research papers, review in-depth articles on the variables at play, and sort through the probable causes and important questions I may need to be asking or have answered by my medical provider. This may be the most powerful resource I have at my fingertips. Knowing the “right” questions to ask can be a game changer.
I’ve heard stories from many clients over the years who have made health and medical decisions with only the information that their practitioners saw fit to share at the time. I’m not blaming health practitioners for not spending days and weeks answering patient questions, it’s nearly impossible. If you want to know the “best” options for care, watch what doctors and nurses do when they get sick. They frequently dig deeply through all their options. They know more, so they advocate more for themselves, and their health.
While doctors, nurses and professionals like me have this advantage, I don’t believe that it has to mean you can’t have the same advantage. It simply requires finding someone you can trust to learn from and begin taking charge of knowing about and understanding your own body, how it works and how to care for it. No need for medical school. Just start with the basics, and go from there.
3) Knowledge of Natural, Holistic and Functional Medicine– I have knowledge of and access to conventional and functional medicine testing. This has been one of the most helpful aspects of dealing with my own hormonal imbalance and health issues.
When it comes to breast cancer prevention, the standard of care is breast screenings via mammogram and ultrasound to detect if abnormal or malignant growths are present. There is no real pathway for prevention. Self-breast exams don’t count either, they can only detect changes that have already taken place.
When I first discovered my risk for breast cancer, I wanted to know what I could do to avoid getting it. I was a woman who ate a mostly healthy diet, exercised, and maintained a normal weight. I couldn’t change that I had not had children—it was too late to get pregnant, much less get the benefits of protection since those benefits only come when you conceive and give birth before 30 years of age. No one had any recommendations for me.
It was only after stumbling around in the healthcare system for a while that I discovered a natural, holistic, and functional medicine perspective and realized that having well balanced hormones would be a critical factor in my own journey to breast health. I knew I had hormone imbalance. I tested using functional and conventional testing protocols and got to work doing everything in my power to adapt my lifestyle and diet to one that would help balance my hormones and build my immune system.
Over the last 8 years, testing has advanced and I have continued to monitor my hormones. The most beneficial advancements in functional testing available have been access to estrogen metabolism testing and genetic testing. Genetic testing confirmed that my genetics also put me at higher risk for breast cancer. Through regular monitoring of estrogen metabolism, I have been able to see the impact of my nutrition and lifestyle interventions on one of the major hormonal factors at play in my risk for breast cancer.
While none of this means that I can be absolutely certain to avoid breast cancer, the research indicates a lowered risk with each of the nutrition and lifestyle interventions that I have been able to implement. By doing the things that I CAN and letting go of what I can’t do, I feel empowered.
4) Nutrition & Lifestyle Expertise– I have a broad knowledge of the impact of nutrition and lifestyle as it relates to hormone and breast health. This is an ongoing project for me. I have had other clients that have survived breast cancer, some with surgery, others without. Some have had estrogen dependent cancers and others not. Breast cancer as a diagnosis is not ONE thing. It is a variety of malignancies, caused by many factors. Some we understand better than we used to, others we may never understand.
I have continued to review the research in this area and while some things aren’t so clear, one thing is…Nutrition and lifestyle can have a huge impact on cancer risks for almost every type of cancer we are experiencing in the Western world.
The majority of what passes for food in the US today would have be unrecognizable by our great-grandparents. With food manufacturers lobbying for continued inclusion of genetically modified foods, pesticides, chemical additives, unsustainable farming practices, and processing of foods that leaves them void of real nutrition, we are subject to “foods” that are wreaking havoc on our health in ways we don’t even understand.
As I have focused on eating a whole-food, nutrient dense diet, my health and hormone balance have improved. While I am a perimenopausal woman with a history of estrogen dominance, I don’t experience many of the symptoms I experienced in my late 30’s when my estrogen metabolism was very poor. I am certain that the nutrition and lifestyle changes that I have made have been a major influence here. In fact, I know it has because I monitor my hormone levels regularly.
5) Healthy, Loving & Supportive Relationships– I have a very good support system. I have an identical twin sister that rivals any “good sister” out there. She is my best friend has loved me longer and more than any human being I know. I have an amazingly supportive husband, who may not always know what to say, but he is steady, calm and a man of strong faith. I have immensely supportive family…My parents, sisters, close cousins and friends. All who would do anything for me, and have at times!
I spend time with them ALL regularly. Not always as regularly as I would like, but I make time for it and I make it happen. I love these people, and they love me, but I also understand that we are not meant to do this thing called life alone. I need others, and I know they need me. Connection is critical to our well-being –maybe even more important than any other thing we can, or will do for our health. I purpose to connect regularly for my health, and the health of my friends and family, and those relationships served me in times when I have desperately needed.
If you aren’t so fortunate to have these kinds of relationships in your life, do what it takes to create them. It takes effort, but the return in priceless.
6) Faith in God– I have faith in God and His promises to me. For some of you, this will sound strange. What does this have to do with whether or not you have a positive experience with breast cancer diagnostics? For me it has everything to do with it! While I do not believe that my faith in God offers me “insurance” from all illness or tragedy, I do believe that my trust in Him offers me a peace that nothing on this earth does.
During my time of wondering and waiting to discover what this lump was, I could have prayed for it to be “benign” and focused solely on that. I did pray that it would be benign, but I am well aware that for many women who prayed the same prayer, they did not receive the answer that they hoped for. I don’t claim to understand the mystery of how God behaves, that’s above my paygrade.
Instead, I prayed for God to be with me as He has promised, before, during and after the diagnostics were completed. In the grand scheme of things, it is the only thing that makes sense. He has never promised in His word that we would not have trials, but He promised that He would be faithful to us through it all if we trust in Him.
I believe that His promise is for the “now”. I found that if I trusted Him when I began to worry, it was all I could do in that moment. When I began to stress or worry in the next moment, I would do the same. It didn’t change what I had to go through, but it changed me. I had peace and was not a “hot mess” filled with terror as I walked through this process over a 3-week period.
This contributed greatly to me having a positive experience as I went through the diagnostic process. By the time the day came to have the mammogram, I felt vulnerable, but had peace that whatever the outcome, God would still be with me, and that would be enough for the moment.
I am sure that my experience is, in some ways, like many women who have gone before me on this journey. In other ways, I am sure that it is different. However, I do believe that my experience was positive due to the combination of all the things I have shared here.
These key factors play a role in my health and happiness every day. They empower me to take positive action consistently and with confidence. I believe that each of these has value in helping me to make informed choices about my health. I believe that they help me to focus more on what I CAN do and less on what I CAN’T do.
Most importantly, each of these things support me in helping the women that I work with to discover and pursue health, to trust themselves and their body, to know and learn what they can, and to let go of what they can’t. They are the reason I am sharing this. They are the reason I do what I do.
Why I’m Sharing…
This is a pretty personal post. While I am largely transparent, this level of share is more than I am comfortable with putting out into the ‘interwebs’ on any given day. So, why am I doing this? My hope is that you and other women who read this article will get a glimpse of what CAN be done to feel empowered and encouraged in the face of what we are told is inevitable for 1 in 8 of us.
Watching and waiting is NOT empowering. It indicates that there is nothing that we can do, and we all want to know that there is something that we can do. Nutrition and lifestyle factors are shown to have a significant impact in reducing breast cancer risks. We can choose how we eat and how we live.
I am sharing this because I want you to know that I support your right to choose to care for your body and your breasts, and that it matters. You have the power to do more than sit and wait.
If you are a woman who been through breast diagnostics, I’d love to hear your story. If you haven’t, I would love to know your thoughts or feelings about it. Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org