I am writing this column somewhat reluctantly, because it is so personal. But I feel I have to do it to help prevent a similar health situation for even one of you.
Remember Mother’s Day? Well, I do, because it was then that I first felt a mild twinge in my right thigh. Oh, I must have pulled a muscle, I thought, and figured it would take a couple of weeks to heal. But it didn’t, and in fact became a little worse. So I thought it should be X-rayed.
The orthopedist’s nurse practitioner at first saw nothing, and then upon closer inspection saw what he termed a “shadow” on the femur, the longest bone in the body. He was immediately alarmed and said I had to have an MRI ASAP, and also see a doctor who was the only practicing orthopedic oncologist in the Valley.
The term “oncologist” left me no doubt about his thinking.
The NP facilitated a quick appointment for the MRI. Yes, the oncologist confirmed his suspicion: In fact there was a malignant mass on my right femur. But wait, there’s more.
The cancer did not start on the bone, the oncologist theorized, so let’s find out where it came from. After some more tests it was determined that it had metastasized from breast cancer, of which I had no clue. Because it had already spread, it was named as stage 4 breast cancer.
I’m relating this painful story because I had regular mammograms until 10 years ago, when I was about 80 years old. At that point a friend told me that the new standard was that a woman could stop at age 75. I had actually had five more years of mammography than was required. Wow! I was thrilled that I didn’t have to go through that uncomfortable process any more. If you share my generous upper-body build, then you know what I mean.
When my family doctor asked why I was stopping, he said, “But I expect you to live for another 10 years, so wouldn’t you want to have those tests?” Not if it is not necessary, and not if it is not required any more, I replied, and besides, I’ve always had good reports, never a hint of a problem, and no family history. It seemed unlikely that anything could go wrong. And so I went on my merry way.
And then 10 years later … As I explained, the mass had spread to my femur. The orthopedic oncologist performed surgery to insert a rod through the femur to prevent a possible fracture and and fall, since the bone had been weakened by the mass. This procedure was done the day after it was diagnosed. It was all so fast that I almost didn’t know what was happening.
I was told the surgery would require an overnight stay in the hospital at best, but it turned out to be eight days at Clovis Community Medical Center, and another eight days at San Joaquin Terraces Rehabilitation.
After returning home for a day and a half, I had unexplained intractable pain and had to return to the hospital. This time it meant 10 more days at Clovis and 10 more days at San Joaquin. We never found out what caused such pain. Some of it still remains and interferes with walking.
I’ve had radiation, medication, injections …. all of which are scary, but so far have been pulling and pushing me in the right direction The numbers look better, they tell me. Each intervention has its side effects, of course, as is to be expected, and I’m just about to start another intervention that is scarier than the others.
Of course, there is no way of knowing at what point the breast mass materialized: if I had continued mammography to age 85, would it have been caught earlier? Nobody knows, but of course with hindsight I obviously regret that I was so cavalier about my doctor’s recommendation.
I want to suggest to others to be more cautious than I was. If you have already stopped getting annual mammograms, consider re-starting. If you are thinking of stopping, please think again. The 15 minutes of discomfort may be life-saving.
Francine M. Farber is the co-president of the League of Women Voters of Fresno and a long-time volunteer and supporter for educational and cultural arts programs. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .