A few years ago, I found my own breast mass.
As an Obgyn I do breast exams every day, but I never expected to find a mass on myself. When I did, immediate panic set in. Breast cancer is rare in men, but it does happen.
The next morning I had one of my partners repeat the exam to confirm the findings. She placed the order for a diagnostic mammogram like we do every day only this time, my name was in the space labeled PATIENT.
I will just sneak in quietly and anonymously
I arrived at the same women’s imaging center where I refer my patients. As I parked my car, that anxiety hit me in the pit of my stomach. Thoughts of “what if” filled my mind. Could it be cancer? What would I do?
As I mustered up the courage to walk inside, I felt more than simple fear. I felt vulnerable. I opened the door and scanned the room. I quickly noticed I was the only man, but I was greeted by two of my patients who happened to be in the waiting room. So much for anonymity.
As I was checking in, I heard, “Hi Dr. Livingston, it’s nice to see you” from the woman staffing the desk who also happened to be my patient. I am bordering on humiliation at this point. I was then escorted to the back for my mammogram.
It’s tough to stand with dignity in a gown with holes for your breasts
While I removed my shirt it crossed my mind that Poetic Justice was at play. I have ordered thousands of mammograms. Now it was my turn to experience what I ask of my patients. As the technician politely entered the room, I stood tall with an air of false confidence dressed in my hospital scrub pants and a paper top with holes for my breasts.
After exchanging small talk, she positioned my breast into a pancake appropriately for the X-Ray. Having heard from patients that mammograms can be painful, I was prepared for discomfort. While there was no physical pain, I confess to an extreme feeling of helplessness standing shirtless, alone in a room with my left breast compressed in a waffle iron. It was over in seconds, and I was able to get dressed.
Our minds take us to dark places
I sat alone in silence, waiting to hear the results. Intellectually, I knew the odds were overwhelming in my favor that the mass was benign. Still, negative possibilities flooded my thoughts.
My mind immediately went to cancer. I began to plan my last will and testament. I thought through which breast surgeon I would choose, and who I would go see for chemotherapy. Luckily, the doctor quickly reported the mass was benign. No sign of malignancy and surgery would not be necessary.
Leaving the center, I felt relief and compassion
The experience of getting a mammogram made me a better doctor. True, I will never experience giving birth, menstrual cramps or other gynecologic conditions that I treat. But now I have a better understanding of how women feel when they bravely enter those doors for cancer screening.
I also feel compassion for those who exit the doors with unfortunate, life-changing news. I understand the fear and anxiety of going for cancer screening, and now I have a story to share with any patient who is anxious about getting it done.
Most importantly, I feel gratitude not just for my results but also for the science and technology available to diagnose treatable illnesses.
Mammograms save lives.