October is breast cancer awareness month. Coincidentally, earlier this month, I had my first mammogram. They had the waiting room all decorated for Breast Cancer Awareness month, which made it seem festive and fun. I was excited to get it out of the way. Not because I have any sort of masochistic tendencies (I save all those for my writing), but because I thought it might be an ordeal and wanted to get it out the way. Turns out, I was wrong. Nothing exciting. They didn’t even call me back for any follow up tests. Turns out my ta-tas are completely unexceptional.
This surprised me because the women in my life have a history of lumpy boobs. My great-grandmother, grandmother, and my sister all had lumps that had to be investigated (but none were anything to worry about, thank goodness!). So I figured I was in for more of the same. Those “establishing a base line” tests can be a pain. Five years ago, when my sister had all her baseline stuff done, she went through months of testing. She would deny this, but she’s a bit of a drama queen. After the first mammogram and the sonogram, the doctor wanted to do a biopsy. My sister waited six weeks to have it done so that she could have “one last Christmas” with her kids.
I’m not even joking.
That’s how convinced she was that she had breast cancer.
She waited six weeks to have the test. She had that “last Christmas.” She went in for the test only to discover that she’s perfectly healthy, but should maybe drink less caffeine. Don’t get wrong, I’m glad she’s fine. (So, so, so glad. Seriously. Very glad.) But at the same time, I kinda wanted to slap her upside the head. She spent six weeks worrying, believing the worst, when she didn’t have to. If she’d just had the test to begin with, she could have saved herself all that fear. All the angst. That terror.
But people are funny about having tests done. So even though I wanted to slap her upside the head, I get it. I do.
Just about a year ago, we lost my mother in law to pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is one of several related cancers. Prostrate, colon, ovarian, pancreatic–they’re all linked. Pancreatic is one of the worst. The symptoms are mostly silent. By the time it’s diagnosed, it’s probably too late. That’s how it was with my mother-in-law. One day, she’s relatively fit, totally active with minor digestive problems. The next she’s in the hospital for something else entirely and they find the tumors. Six weeks later she was gone. None of us were even remotely prepared.
But here’s the weird thing … about a year or so before she was diagnosed, she finally retired. (My mother-in-law had a work ethic like you can’t imagine. I mean, Siberian minors worked less hard.) So, she finally retired. She and my father-in-law bought a RV and traveled around the country. They stopped at our house on their way to their great tour of Southern BBQ joints and spent a few days here with us.
I have this vivid memory of standing in my bedroom with her. I mentioned how glad I was that she’d retired and that they were taking this trip. Something about her expression as she answered made me pause whatever I was doing and look up.
She said, “Well, I’m sixty-eight and I don’t know how much time I have left. My mother died when she was seventy-four.”
I remember thinking that that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. My mother-in-law was strong and fit and full of life. A month before she was diagnosed, she came and stayed with our kids while I was at a conference. She was the most fit of all four of our parents. And the youngest of the four, too! But I remember so vividly what she said and to this day her words haunt me.
Pancreatic cancer is a silent killer, but did she know? After all, she’d lost her mother to cancer. And she had had years of digestive problems. Maybe on some level she did know.
But you know, here’s the thing about women–and I know you know this already–but we tend to put other people first. My father-in-law has a laundry list of health problems. Taking care of him was a full time job and I’m sure there were times she should have taken herself to the doctor but she took him instead. I know she did that. My mother-in-law was tough, but she was a care giver.
As I sat in the waiting room for my first mammogram, I thought about her and about how important early detection is, not just in breast cancer, but in all cancers. And I thought about my sister, who worried when she didn’t need to and who put off that test because she wanted “one last Christmas.” I thought about all the frightening health problems that can come up. And I thought about how putting off tests and doctor’s visits don’t help at all.
So, this month, I challenge you: whatever it is that you need to do to take care of your body–whether it’s a mammogram or a follow-up-visit or a annual well-woman visit–schedule it today. Today!
For me, it’s my annual eye exam. I’m woefully behind. I’m calling my doctor this morning!
So how about you? What have you been putting off (health-wise)? If you own up to it and pledge to make the appointment today, I’ll send you a free book! So, fess up.