My right breast and I recently went for a mammogram. I lost the left one to cancer five years ago, so for me, Mammogram Day is the scariest day of the year. I get the jitters about a week before my appointment. I push my fear to the back of my mind, but it hovers there right up to the time of my appointment, and my anxiety increases exponentially as the hospital elevator ascends to the radiology department on the third floor.
What did I learn this year on Mammogram Day? I learned that anger trumps fear.
To set your mind at ease, I will tell you right now that my mammogram was negative. So was my reaction when the technician told me to expect a postcard about my test results in 10 to 12 days. (Read on to learn how I managed to get my results sooner.)
A Needless Wait
Anyone who has ever waited for medical test results knows just how excruciating that experience is. But this was not biopsied tissue that had to be monitored in a petri dish and then studied by assorted pathologists. This was a digital mammogram, easy to compare with last year’s.
All I wanted was a preliminary reading, a quick look from a radiologist to determine whether any change was evident, a sense of whether I could go back to untroubled sleep until next year’s test.
Because the radiology department considered mine a routine mammogram, the answer was no. I was told to wait for the postcard.
Waiting more than a week when you know that the results are available to your doctor — but not to you — is excruciating and unacceptable.
How mad was I?
Metaphorically speaking, my hair was on fire, for two reasons.
First of all, when applied to breast cancer survivors, this policy is cruel. Second, I fought this same fight exactly one year ago, and foolishly imagined my heartfelt protests had led to a change in the policy.
I Got Mad — and Then I Got Going
Anger shoved aside my fear. I stopped in the restroom to splash cold water on my flushed face. Then, I took a deep breath and headed for the oncology department on the eighth floor.
It was noon, and the waiting room was empty. I pushed open the door with the sign that read “Authorized Personnel Only.” I called out, “Hello?” and a medical assistant emerged from a back office. I told her my story and asked to write a short note to my oncologist, begging her to contact me as soon as my mammogram result was available.
The medical assistant immediately took the note to my doctor’s case manager, who came out of her office to assure me that she would be in touch. (She emailed me with the results the next morning.) Then the case manager, who remembered my previous effort to change the policy, recommended I speak once again to the radiology department.
Of course, I had already determined that was my next stop.
“I need to speak to a manager,” I told the man at the front desk. He didn’t ask why or hesitate for even a moment. Maybe my demeanor scared him. I know I was in full Boudica mode, inhabited by the spirit of the Celtic war queen who challenged Rome some 1,954 years ago.
The assistant manager on duty — a young woman new to the department — listened to my story. Then she told me that the radiology department prides itself on quick turnaround, reporting test results to doctors within 24 to 48 hours.
When I asked why the department does not take pride in reporting as quickly to patients, her answer was that no one had ever thought of that. So much for my campaign last year.
How to Be Your Own Advocate
The assistant manager promised to speak with the head of the department on my behalf. I thanked her politely — but been there, done that. So I went home and wrote a letter to the department head, with copies to the head of oncology and to my doctor.
Please rethink your policy of refusing to provide a preliminary report to breast cancer survivors shortly after a mammogram. At the very least, insist that technicians tell survivors to ask their doctors for a report as soon as the imaging results are available. Waiting more than a week when you know that the results are available to your doctor — but not to you — is excruciating and unacceptable. I look forward to your response.
The official notification that my mammogram was clear arrived in the mail eight days later. Another week had passed when the director of radiology called me on a Sunday afternoon. “I’m looking into this,” he said, “to see how we can do better.”
Will the radiology department change its policy because of my complaint? I don’t know. I do know that if we don’t act as advocates for ourselves, nothing will change.
If your hospital or mammography clinic has this same policy for women who already have been through the physical and psychological hell that is breast cancer — and if waiting 10 to 12 days when you know the results are available far sooner upsets you — say something to the people who make these policies.
Use your own words or use mine, but don’t be silent.
By speaking up on this issue, breast cancer survivors give the medical profession the opportunity to put patients first and to provide more compassionate health care. Even if we have to channel ancient female war heroes to do it.