What Is My Psychological Damage?

Warning: controversial topic, I’m not taking much of a stand, just trying to work out my thoughts and feelings here, so be gentle in comments to me and to others.

“’Cause I’m just a girl, a little ‘ol me”

-“Just A Girl”, by No Doubt

“Oh I’ve had it up to here” Gwen Stefani sings in that old song. What I’ve had it up to here with is the use of “needless worry” and similar phrases as a reason to advise against screenings (annual or additional), or a reason to not inform women of breast density.

As I’ve said many times on this blog, I am not in the “a mammogram saved my life” camp—in fact that is one of the clichés of cancer driving me crazy lately. I hate the hyperbole of the phrase. I actually do understand to a degree when advocates point out that mammograms are not reducing the number of breast cancer deaths. But I have reservations about eliminating routine screening, and BIG reservations about not informing patients about density and potential problems, regardless of whether it can impact them or not. But whenever the needless worry reason is invoked, I stop reading/listening, and therefore am not absorbing the information advocates are trying to present, and I am not persuaded.

Don’t get me wrong—cancer is an emotional topic, like any illness or anything that severely alters life. And I have an emotional reaction to the emotional issue raised. I’ve started this post so many times in the past few months. I see yet another article about the uselessness of mammograms or over-diagnosis and start writing, but my emotions get in the way of making my points. I’m trying again, and hope I’m articulate. It seems this debate pops up every few months—whether it is this or that study, with whatever slight difference (I’ve written about that before).

I’m not suggesting worry and other emotions should not be brought into the discussion—my problem is the tone in which they are brought up, and the fact that the anxiety is used as a reason to discourage screenings or informing patients of density, right alongside data and stats showing mammograms don’t improve death by cancer rates or extra screenings won’t help those with density. I’m hearing: “tests are scary, so don’t worry your pretty little head”, and for me that cancels out the numbers and facts proving screenings are not as effective as we’ve been led to believe.

In many ways I’m the poster child for the ineffectiveness of mammograms and why routine screening should cease (or at least my cancer experience is on the poster). Propelled by my aunt’s diagnosis of Stage 3 cancer in August 2010 (and her experience was complex; including numerous tests the previous year, and a wait and see suggestion, but hers is not my story to tell), I asked for a mammogram at age 38, September 2010. I got an all clear, and 5 weeks later with an inverted nipple, I learned I had Stage 3, an oblong tumor approximately 5×6 cm going from nipple to almost the chest wall, with some spread to lymph nodes (that spread had not been made clear to me back then, I recently learned about it). I get very tired of the word “over” (as in over-diagnosed, treated, tested), and I think wow, I was UNDER-diagnosed. But really I was misdiagnosed. A false negative, I guess. So, in short, routine screening—not that great for me, and I have no call to defend it.

To be clear, it was not an issue of the technology not displaying the tumor. That old analogy of screening dense breasts being like trying find a snowball in a snowstorm also fails in my case. For me, no storm, only snowball. The tumor was dismissed as a density by the human looking at my images (my oncologists punt on this—they both say I have average age related dense breasts—not actual dense breasts), but I was not informed. I did not even know the radiologist wrote on a report not given to me that he saw a dense left breast until I confronted my oncologist in 2013, long after treatment ended. Did the radiologist hear all the rumbles about over-diagnosis, and all the needless worry, and decided it wasn’t worth having me worry my pretty little head about it—when clearly I had cause to worry? Was this debate raging in 2010? How the hell should I know? I didn’t read this stuff back then, I thought breast cancer was an older woman’s problem. And even then I figured I’d be one of the other 7, not 1 in 8 (yes I now know I was actually 1 in 233 or whatever other large number applies to the 30-39 crowd, I’ve seen a few conflicting things). In short, while I was trying to be proactive and dutiful, I did not really have any concerns. But I am sure some would consider me a victim of the awareness campaigns’ fear-mongering practices used to drive women to useless mammograms, simply because I went.

The eliminate screenings advocates would point out that not being informed made no difference to me. I developed symptoms, I sought medical attention, and nearly 5 years later, I’m still here, bitching about everything. I was saved 5 weeks of worry—gee whiz, aren’t I lucky (yes being sarcastic).

The recent Newsweek piece says, “Not every woman with dense breast tissue should be subjected to additional screening tests, which can be psychologically damaging and contribute to unnecessary health care costs…” and I just cringe. The latest to invoke the “needless worry and anxiety” cliché, it just sent me over the edge. I have a clear memory during the first few awful infusion weeks that included getting the Red Devil. A woman decided to tell me about that one time a worrisome mammogram forced her to go back for a biopsy, how awful those days of waiting were for her, until thankfully she learned she did not have cancer. Obviously, this did not sit well with me. All I could think about was how lucky she was, for her worry to be revealed as needless.

I hate that I think this way. I hate the disease comparison/competitions that are so prevalent lately. I catch myself thinking “I WISH I’d had a false positive” and sternly rebuke myself for sounding like that cancer patient in the UK Pancreatic Cancer PSA (“I wish I had breast cancer”) that inflamed so many breast cancer patients last year. (Want Attention? Just Say Breast Cancer.) But I am envious; I do wish I’d had a false positive instead of cancer because, well, I wish I’d never had cancer. I know I sound like I’m diminishing the fears of others, I sound not so compassionate–I’m working on this—I’m human, not perfect.

I think I have psychological damage, but the opposite kind of damage that all the hand-wringing is about. I worry because I didn’t worry back when I had reason to worry (am I making up for lost worry?). I do not trust tests, even when I have them and the results are showing no signs of cancer. I mean, I’ve heard that bad joke before, haven’t I? You’re fine—no, wait, no you’re not! Some say the government should not legislate the doctor-patient conversation. But having been a patient with the experience of finding out bits and pieces during and after treatment, well, I am left distrustful, doubtful, and faithless in most medical professionals’ abilities. That is just how it is for me. One big mistake was made about me, and I am unforgiving and taking it out on everyone else I guess. So when I read the hand-wringing about needless worry, all I can think is, “man, I got nothin’ but worry now, how about we trade, I’ll take some of that needless worry”.

This ramble is just to explain how I arrived at this point of view now, unsettled by use of emotion as an excuse to withhold information from women. I’m sure other bloggers can tackle the patriarchal medicine issues I think, and others might think, are going on here. A few months ago I caught a re-run of “Designing Women”, in which a character was encouraged to get a second opinion and biopsy. The first doctor was framed as a villain—accused of telling women to let him do the worrying for them. While I doubt we are on the path back to those dark ages (the 80s!), there is still a…I don’t know…”whiff” of “let the omnipotent medical professionals handle everything” when I hear an argument to withhold information—however useless—from a patient.

I also realize that far reaching public policy should not be influenced by the individual, stereotypical “personal cancer story”, just like my boring version I tell here. What happened to me was statistically rare (or so I understand and I do not think singular), so what is the use of telling every single woman under 40 about densities and risk. None, I guess, except to keep 1 in 233 women from experiencing the same sucker punch I did. The push for laws informing women of density was beginning while I was in treatment. I became dimly aware of it, having first ever heard the phrase dense breasts in the daze-filled first days of cancer, when I weakly asked how on earth my first mammogram was clear, what with all this cancer I suddenly had. All I got was the lame shrug and “young women have dense breasts” line, absent of further explanation. I still hold resentment—psychological damage, if you will—about that.

I want to jump on the “eliminate needless screenings” bandwagon, since I run away from the “mammograms/early detection saves lives” chants. But as long as that specter of “don’t let these emotional women worry so much” remains in the arguments, I will not be listening, much less agreeing.

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