For weeks, I was debating sharing this personal story. To say that the past few months have been challenging would be an understatement. I hope this piece will encourage you to speak up about your own health because not every medical practitioner will have the best intentions for you.
July 2022: I started experiencing a weird sensation on my left breast. The best way I can describe the feeling is like a sharp tingling, and it would happen in jolts. Since I got off birth control, my body was adjusting to certain changes, so I associated this issue with my menstrual cycle. As summer continued, the jolts became more frequent and sometimes woke me up in the middle of the night. My concern grew. This was not normal. I scheduled an appointment to see my OB/GYN.
September 2022: I am at Morris Heights Health Center answering a bunch of questions in one of the exam rooms. My doctor was unfortunately booked, so I had to be examined by someone else. I’ll call her Dr. Susan*. After explaining my symptoms and taking a look at my breasts, Dr. Susan said “Oh, you’re fine. This is just a hormonal problem that fluctuates with your period.”
My instincts were telling me she was wrong. No, this was not my anxiety causing me to overthink the issue. Everything within me screamed “Nope! This ain’t right!”
I pointed out to Dr. Susan that my mother had a history of breast cancer. She beat it twice. There were no obvious signs when she was first diagnosed; the symptoms were similar to mine. Although the BRCA gene test results were negative, I remembered her surgeon telling my sister and me that we needed to get mammograms done at an earlier age as a precaution. Dr. Susan then tells me “You are too young for breast cancer. There is nothing wrong with you.”
Now I knew this “doctor” was ignorant. Recent studies show that in the past decade alone there has been an increase in women between the ages of 19-39 being diagnosed with breast cancer. While keeping Mami company during her treatments, I saw other patients my own age coming out of chemotherapy or radiation. At the Breast Cancer walk in Central Park, I lost count of the women and men wearing “survivor” sashes who were under 50.
I want to take this moment to give a huge shout-out to a wonderful nurse named Madeline*! She is the only reason I got the referral needed for the sonogram. Madeline sensed my frustration and vouched for me after reading the medical records herself. She told Dr. Susan “A sonogram would be a good idea to rule out the worst-case scenario. Don’t see why it would be a problem.” My shoulders relaxed. Dr. Susan seemed annoyed but began typing up the referral. She was going to send me to a location I wasn’t familiar with, but I argued with her about that. I wanted to be checked out at St. Barnabas Hospital. The staff there saved Mami’s life. I trusted them more than whomever Dr. Susan recommended.
Madeline walked me out and asked me if I needed anything else.
“Yes. Whatever results come from the sonogram, please have it sent to my doctor, not Dr. Susan. She completely dismissed me and you know it.”
Madeline agreed. I then gave her a hug and thanked her for speaking up for me and making me feel that someone cared. There is already enough prejudice against women in the healthcare industry. Many are not believed and by the time they receive answers, it is too late. The world needs more medical professionals like Madeline.
October 2022: It’s Halloween and I am in the waiting area at St. Barnabas Hospital. Most of the staff wore accessories to be in the spooky spirit. I felt scared, but not because of the festivities. It was my choice to go to the appointment alone. I admit I have a bad habit of trying to handle issues like this on my own (inherited that from both my parents). I didn’t want to worry anyone else until I had all the information in front of me. The only person who knew what was going on with me was Gil, who was at work. He had preferred I not be alone, but I insisted I was good.
When I was called in for the sonogram, the technician asked me to swap out my sweater and long-sleeve tee for the paper-thin hospital gown. She then explained how the process was going to go. The sonogram took about 15-20 minutes and wasn’t as uncomfortable as I imagined. After telling me I could sit up, she typed up some notes on the computer and then turned to me; “I need to show the surgeon your scans. Wait here for a few minutes.”
“Is something wrong?” I asked her.
“I just want to confirm something with her. Just wait here, okay?” She squeezed my hand before leaving me on my own.
My anxiety was on high now. I did a few breathing exercises to try to prevent a panic attack. Something must have been found during the sonogram. Those five minutes felt like an hour. When the technician returned, I got a surprising request: “Would you be able to stay a little longer for a mammogram? Due to your mother’s history, the surgeon wants to take a better look.”
I am moved to a smaller waiting area. A few women were seated in the gowns waiting to get examined. No one spoke. I go to the restroom and splash cold water onto my face to pull myself together. My mental health demons were hitting me with everything they had; all I wanted to do was scream.
Then I thought about Mami: how she experienced the same anxiety I was now trying so hard to hide to seem strong. Mami accepted every scan, surgery, and other medical procedure that came her way despite the pain that came with all of it. She is still here, cancer free. The bracelet on my wrist with the words “be brave” stamped on it reminded me of Gil and my close friends, the ones who were always encouraging me, especially on my bad days. With all my loved ones in mind, I managed to remain a little calmer until my name was called again.
A different technician prepped me for the mammogram. After answering the same series of questions, she explained to me what to do. I’ve heard from other women how painful these scans were for them due to the squeezing. For me, it thankfully wasn’t that bad. The technician gave me the “okay” to put my shirt and sweater back on and walked me back to the waiting area. Another stretch of time went by before the surgeon finally asked me to see her.
The large monitors were the first thing I noticed when I walked into her room. My scans were loaded for me to see. After accompanying Mami to many appointments, I learned what to look for within the images. The dark spots on the sonogram were staring me in the face. The surgeon wasted no time explaining what was found.
“We found several cysts in both your breasts. That explains the discomfort you’ve experienced for the past few months. Some are the size of a grain of rice, while the bigger ones resemble a raisin. The great news is they are benign. Nothing to worry about in terms of cancer.”
I released the biggest sigh of relief. No cancer! Thank you, God. I’m okay!
The surgeon sadly wasn’t done. My final diagnosis resulted in “complex” cysts. Unlike regular cysts that are filled up with fluid, the ones in my breast are a mix of fluid and tissue cells. Now that there is a history of breast cancer in my family, chances are slightly higher for the cysts to become cancerous. I will need to continue to come into the hospital every six months to have imaging done for preventative/monitoring purposes. If the cysts grow or begin to cause me more discomfort than usual, I’ll need to get them removed. They might also shrink away on their own, which I hope is the case.
I don’t have the worst-case scenario, yet the cysts worry me. To know that at any moment my body can betray me sucks. I won’t lie, when I returned home, I ended up having a panic attack. Gil did his best to help me get through it. There was anger within me too. Had I let Dr. Susan get her way, who knows what could have happened over time?
As of right now, the cysts cause me occasional pain. Some days are better than others. Pain medication was prescribed, but I do not want to depend on them. I am working with both my OB/GYN and the staff at the hospital. Earlier this month, I had another sonogram done. No significant changes were found, which is great news. Most of my family received the news well when I told them. Mami blames herself for what is happening, but I don’t see the situation that way at all. Shit just happens!
I know this is a long post, but I wanted to share my experience because a doctor didn’t take the time to listen to her patient. I am terrified to know how many people she misdiagnosed. If you feel that something is wrong, TRUST YOURSELF! Fight to be heard or get a second opinion. It’s your body and health. YOU KNOW WHAT IS BEST FOR YOU!
Note: Names were changed to keep the nurse’s name confidential, but best believe I reported that doctor!
Last Updated: May 25, 2023
Banner Image: Rosa Elena