Erika McCullough

Go 3D or Go Home is the is the motto that I live by these days.

On January 23, 2014, I went in for a routine mammogram. I had not scheduled a 3D mammogram prior to my appointment, and frankly had no idea what they were. When I arrived to check in, the receptionist asked for the usual identification, and then asked the question that would forever alter my life… “Do you want a 3D mammogram today? It is a $50 copay if you do.” I thought about it for a moment, and then answered “yes.” Little did I know the weight that “yes” would carry. I went on to tell the receptionist that I often get reports of dense breast tissue, so yes, I’d like to go ahead and do it. I learned that the 3D mammogram is more sensitive than the regular machines, and is very good for those with dense tissue. However, the 3D machine is not any gentler on your breasts. So they got squashed against those cold plates while I followed the instructions to hold my breath, breathe, hold my breath again, and whatever you do…don’t move. It only took a few minutes, and I was sent on my way. A few days later, I had my annual exam with my gynecologist. During the visit, she did the routine breast examination (which I am embarrassed to say I never did on myself). After completion, I thought I was in the clear for another year. Little did I know that she had just examined the spot where a tumor was growing, but was not felt by touch at this point.

That night, I received a phone call from the Breast Care Center. “There is something suspicious on the mammogram,” they said, “you need to come back”. I was scheduled for an appointment 9 days later. While I waited for that appointment to come, I asked friends and family if they’d ever been called back. “I’m sure it’s nothing” was the comforting response I received from many.

February 5th arrived and as I checked into the Breast Care Center that day, things were hopping. Our area had just dealt with significant snow. If you have ever been in the south for a snowstorm, you know just how inept we are at dealing with it! As I waited for my turn, I overheard the receptionist ask the 3D question again to another patient. This time she followed it up with the fact that it would be a 2-hour wait for the machine. Two hours, I thought, who has two hours to wait for that machine. If that had been the case on the 23rd, I would have said “no” and that would have changed everything. Finally, it was my turn and this time they focused the images on the right breast – the suspicious one. They made me wait while they read the results, and then took me for an ultrasound. It was there that I remember the doctor saying they had found an area of concern, and it had starburst edges. Starburst edges…those two words made my heart sink. They sent me to another room to meet with a nurse and find a breast cancer specialist for a biopsy. I looked at the wall of pictures and bios of doctors, and picked one at random. An appointment was made for the next day. I left the center with tears in my eyes and my voice barely a whisper, telling my friend who had brought me what they had found.

On February 6th I met with the breast cancer surgeon, who performed the biopsy of the tumor. As I lay on the table, watching the monitor, she told me that I had a 5% chance of this not being cancer. I was sent home again, and told to return on the 7th for the results. That night, I knew…I knew that I would be officially diagnosed with breast cancer. And that’s what happened. I was Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma at 44 years of age. The next few weeks were a roller coaster of appointments for BRACA testing (which was negative), an MRI – which revealed other suspicious areas on the left breast, more biopsies – which turned out to be negative, and a switch to a new breast cancer surgeon that a friend recommended. Dr. Reed, my new doctor, is a godsend. She answered all my questions, and treated me as if I were a friend.

Saying “yes” to 3D that day back in January allowed me to have more choices in my treatment, catching the cancer at a very early stage. Saying “yes” caught the cancer before it spread to my lymph nodes. I chose to have a lumpectomy (3 actually because they could not get clear margins the first two tries), and my tumor tested low in the Oncotype DX testing – the test which dictates whether chemotherapy will be part of treatment. I am so grateful that I was able to miss chemo. I completed my treatment with 33 rounds of radiation (aka baking the brownies).

I am so blessed that we have an incredible cancer center here in town, and that my scheduled appointment was right after my (now) good friend, Joy’s appointment. Every day for 6 weeks, I sat in the waiting room laughing until I was crying with Joy. A few weeks into treatment, Linda joined us in the cancer center. I actually looked forward to the appointments, as we would joke and laugh each day. The staff says it hasn’t been the same since the three of us finished. “Big Momma” (the name taped to the radiation machine) zapped us over and over, burning our skin, but sharing that experience with those ladies was priceless. At the end of the 6 weeks, I met my oncologist and started Tamoxifen, the only drug available to me because I am premenopausal.

Tamoxifen has not been my friend, causing joint pain, weight gain, significant bruising and other side effects. I know all of these things are bearable if it means that my chance of recurrence stays low. That is my main focus now – keeping my recurrence rate as low as possible, and also spreading the word to “Go 3D or go home” to anyone who will listen. I am so thankful that we live in an age where this technology is available. I wouldn’t want to think what my situation would have been had it not.

– Erika McCullough, Norfolk, Virginia

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