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At 78, Grateful for a Mammogram

An early-stage cancer diagnosis convinced actor and writer Karen Grassle of the continued importance of screenings

By Karen Grassle

I hate mammograms. A friend calls them "The Big Squeeze." But something hadn't felt right. So, there I was again: the demeaning push to my breast by the technician, who then maneuvers my arm like I'm a Barbie, and finally, the breast smashed into a shelf by a cold machine. The pain was brief. I reached for my shirt.

Actor/writer Karen Grassle smiling wearing a red shirt. Mammogram, Karen Grassle, Next Avenue
Actor and writer Karen Grassle  |  Credit: Courtesy of Karen Grassle

"I'm seventy-eight. Can't I stop doing this?" I asked.

"No!" she was adamant, "If they find something, you're strong, you can have it out and get on with your life." She paused, "Now, if it was my mother..." She stopped, collected the film plates and was soon out the door. Her mother, what? It's not worth finding out? Chilling thought.

When the Carol Ann Read Breast Health Center in Oakland, Calif. called to schedule a follow-up mammogram, I wasn't surprised. My dense breast tissue makes my tests hard to decipher. The second one was not clear either. An ultrasound was needed.

It was awkward to sit up in that lie-back chair. I don't want to be supine to hear I have cancer.

This was familiar, too. I didn't worry as the young technician smiled and guided me to the dimly lit ultrasound room. I laid back in the comfy lounge chair while she looked. But she kept looking. And looking. She sees something.

"I'll show this to the doctor and then he'll come in and talk to you." Not good.

The doctor was an older man, as old as I? It was awkward to sit up in that lie-back chair. I don't want to be supine to hear I have cancer.

'We Need a Biopsy'

"You have two masses; one is the diameter of your little fingernail and the other is smaller. We need a biopsy. It's in a chair like this with ultrasound and lidocaine to numb the spot. We need to see the lymph node as well. Three little stings. Like going to the dentist," the doctor said.

He told the technician to schedule it. "Everything is booked until after Thanksgiving," she replied. The doctor countermanded, "Figure it out. Get it before Thanksgiving."

Two days later I had the biopsies and was assured I would hear before Thanksgiving. Six days. I waited. Walked. Kept phone close. Wednesday, I began to feel angry, a sure sign I was getting scared.

On Thanksgiving morning, an email came from my primary physician: "I am so sorry...invasive ductal carcinoma…" Away all day, she would call Friday regarding breast surgeon referrals.

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My son and I finished our Thanksgiving meal in pandemic isolation. Zach said he was tired and wanted to go home.

Alone in the changing room, I heaved sobs.

"Okay, but first I have to tell you something," I said. I hated this because his father, from whom I'm divorced, has some scary health issues.

Zach took it on the chin. "I'll do whatever I can," he promised. We talked of phenomenal treatments, of hope.

Mammograms for Older Women

In my women's Zoom circle, after hearing my news, a friend exclaimed, "I thought at our age Kaiser [Kaiser Permanente, a health care company] doesn't even send out reminders!"

Another called to schedule a mammogram and her internist resisted. Kaiser's policy, on its website, is: "For women ages 75 and up, mammograms are offered in the context of shared decision-making between a woman and her physician." (Italics mine.)

On the other hand, The American Cancer Society recommends: "Women should continue screening mammography as long as their overall health is good and they have a life expectancy of 10 years or longer." (Italics mine.)

I made appointments with two breast surgeons. Pandemic protocols allowed Zach to attend the initial appointment. I was bowled over by the caregivers' kindness, for the smallest thing.

A breast MRI was ordered. Naively, I assumed I would go through it as easily as a knee MRI. Then, the reality.

The women who positioned me and counseled me to be still and not breathe deeply were angels of mercy.  Still, OMG — my body pants like a dog, but keep it small, don't ruin it, tears spout, prayer — help me through this. People with cancer have these terrible things done to them.

I Was Lucky

Alone in the changing room, I heaved sobs. I crept out to walk by the water.

Mine was early-stage. I was lucky. The surgery planned, I ordered a Christmas tree and postponed reading the medical material. I sang to the tree in the early dark. I joked cancer was "too time consuming." But I wept when they said I'd have to wait until after the New Year.

It was time. I jumped through hoops and met the day more than ready. I recalled the technician saying, "You'll have it out and get on with your life."

And that is what happened.

I am cancer free now. As far as anyone can tell. Life will be somewhat different. Breast cancer has an insidious way of planting itself in other body parts. I will follow the advice for prevention of recurrence. And I will continue regular mammograms.

Karen Grassle, best known for her portrayal of Ma on NBC’s Little House on the Prairie, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she writes, does plays and develops new material. Read More
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