Mammograms, BRCA Testing & Surgery

The ordeal that followed my breast cancer scare is finally over.

A quick recap: last February, doctors discovered a mass in my right breast during a routine mammogram. I was 34–the same age my mother was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer–and I hadn’t felt a thing during my monthly self-exams. I was shocked.

After an ultrasound and four mammograms, I learned that the type of precancerous atypia (or cell abnormality) that I had was no joke. With my diagnosis, and my family history of breast cancer, I elected to have BRCA testing. Ironically it’s a two-second blood test, which seems laughably simple for such a serious test.

A lot of you have asked me questions about the testing, so I consulted my physician–Rachel Wellner, MD, a breast health expert and breast surgeon in New York City–for some information that I could share with you. (Of course, you should consult your doctor as well!)

Here’s what Dr. Wellner said (the rest of my story is below):

We all have two BRCA genes, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, that function as tumor suppressors. When either of these genes are mutated, a genetic condition that can be passed on from generation to generation, the affected carrier is at greater risk for developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. When a woman tests positive for the gene, her lifetime risk of developing breast cancer goes from 12% (average risk) to 40-80%; her ovarian cancer risk increases from 1% to 20-60%. When either a man or a woman is BRCA positive, he or she has a 50/50 chance of passing the abnormal gene on to each of his or her offspring.

BRCA testing isn’t for everyone. If you were diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 45, and/or you have a family member who was diagnosed with breast cancer under age 50, for example, you should talk to your doctor about the possibility of undergoing testing, as well as the consequences of the test results. 

For more information on testing, as well as additional indicators for testing, go to

When Dr. Wellner gave me this information, she drew pictures and explained what a positive test result would mean for my future. She discussed regular screenings through mammograms and MRIs, as well as medication and (gulp) prophylactic mastectomies and oophorectomy (ovarian removal).

To be honest, I was running on so much adrenaline that I didn’t even process half the information that she gave me until later. Mason and I had been up most of the night dealing with teething pain, and I had a ton of nervous energy stored up after having to wait a month to see the doctor.

But the M word stuck with me. The thought of having to undergo a mastectomy scares the h-ll out of me, and I imagine I’m in good company. I was eight-years-old when my mother had one, and I still remember the tears and the scars and the staples and the surgical drains. I don’t ever want Mason to see me go through that.

However, I told Dr. Wellner that I was willing to do whatever it took to keep myself healthy and alive as long as possible for my son. If feel that as a mother, it’s my job to honor and protect my good health. And since this highly recommended doctor was advising BRCA testing, I was going to do it.

I got my blood test that day, went back to work, picked up Mason after school and did our nighttime routine–and then let myself sob after he went to bed. There was no question in my mind that I had done the right thing by getting the test, but it was still terrifying. Based on my personal and family history, I was preparing my for the worst. Later I would learn that Chris was, too.

We waited three weeks for the test results. Then, by the grace of God, I learned that my BRCA test was negative. Chris, Mason, and I went out to dinner that night to celebrate.  I had my precancerous breast mass removed a few days later, followed by a mammogram two weeks ago and an MRI last week.

I saw Dr. Wellner this afternoon, and she said that all is well. I’ll see her again in six months for a check-up, but I won’t need to get another mammogram or MRI for a year. I feel so grateful and lucky and thankful right now. This good fortune is such a blessing.

Photo: Breast cancer pink ribbon via OttnaYdur/

My Breast Cancer Scare

My friend Katherine saved my life. Last July we were wandering around Midtown east near our office (we work at the same company), trying to figure out where to go for lunch. Somehow mammograms came up and I confessed that I hadn’t had one since a few months before I got pregnant with Mason. Heather, you’ve got to go get one! she said. Of course I knew she was right.  I’m not 40, the recommended age to start getting mammograms–but I’m 34, which is the same age my mother was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And Katherine knows my history as well as I do.

I was dragging my feet scheduling my mammogram because my first one had been so mortifying, and not for the usual reasons (ie. You’re standing there topless while a technician manhandles your breasts and takes images of them). I mean, that part was embarrassing–but it got worse as the testing went on. Turns out, the technician had recognized my photo from a recipe newsletter that I edited and she freaked out. You’re a celebrity! she said. (Um, hardly.) The next time I get my newsletter, I’ll say, ‘I’ve seen her boobies!'” OMG. If this woman was excited to meet me–and, um, “see my boobies”– imagine how she’d handle a mammogram with Jennifer Aniston?!

At Katherine’s urging, I called my ob-gyn as soon as we got back from lunch and scheduled my annual appointment. My doctor agreed that I needed another mammogram so she gave me a ‘script for one. The earliest I could get an appointment was last month because my ob hadn’t noticed anything concerning when she examined me. I marked the date on my calendar and forgot about it. My own mother had discovered her breast lump while she was taking a shower, so surely if my doctor didn’t feel a lump–and I hadn’t felt anything abnormal during my monthly self-breast exams–everything had to be fine, right? Or so I thought.

The day before I left for BlissDom, I got the mammogram. I had been sitting at my desk all morning trying to think up excuses to reschedule the appointment. I had a million things to do and I was positive I was fine. Why waste the time? Then I thought of Giuliana Rancic. She was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall, and she hadn’t noticed a problem prior to her mammogram. She hadn’t wanted to go get the test either, but she did and it probably saved her life. So I went through with it.

Nearly a week went by without a call from my doctor, so I assumed I was fine. They always call quickly if something is wrong, my mother assured me. Just put it out of your mind, you’re fine. Then my doc called to tell me that there had been a “finding” on my mammogram and that I needed to go back for a sonogram. I did as she instructed. Nothing showed up on the sonogram but it did show up once again on a second mammogram (which is apparently common with some masses)–and it turns out the finding was suspicious. The timing of all of this totally freaked me out–like I said, I’m the same age my mother was when she had breast cancer.

The radiologist ordered a needle biopsy, which I had done this past Tuesday. I’m not going to lie, it sucked. It was invasive and painful. The mass is right next to my breast bone, and I’ve been sore and bruised all week. But it was so worth it: About an hour ago, my doctor called to tell me that the mass they discovered  isn’t cancer (thank God) but it is precancerous, so I’ll need to have surgery to have it removed.

It’s cliche, but I feel like I dodged a bullet. Thank God I listened to Katherine. Thank God I have her as my friend. And thank God I don’t have cancer. To me, the biopsy yielded the best possible outcome. I’ll have this thing removed from my right breast–soon–and I won’t have to think about it anymore. And I’ll have a constant reminder (a scar) to take care of myself, which is something I forget to do sometimes now that I’m a busy mom. Get rest and exercise. Eat healthfully. Stop worrying so much. Stress less (my biggest challenge).

Seriously, if you have a family history of breast cancer–or you’re 40–schedule that mammogram. It’s just not worth it to take the chance. If not for you, do it for your kids.

Photo: Breast cancer awareness ribbon via Graphic design/Shutterstock