How would you feel if you went to a doctor for a needle biopsy on your breast a week before you were leaving on vacation? What if you arrived there not knowing if those white dots that showed up on yesterday’s mammogram are calcification or cancer? And you’re forced to wait. Not 10 minutes, or 15, or even half an hour. Each minute is like an eternity, and I waited for 44 minutes. I mean, we’re not talking about a Botox appointment or a manicure. We’re either talking ho-hum-it’s-nothing or you could possibly die. If you’re like me, you’d be anxious at best. Let’s be honest. I wasn’t just anxious. I was terrified and furious. Even if the odds are 80 to 90% that those little white spots are benign, you still want to know, right?
Now the doctor doing this biopsy was DEFINITELY NOT a pleasure. The receptionist told me that the doctor doesn’t take insurance and prefers to be paid by check. (!!) We’re talking $2,700 per procedure and I needed two of them. F*** her “preference!” I handed the receptionist my AMEX card, thinking at least I’d get a few thousand miles toward next year’s vacation (if we can still afford one). Anyway, at the doctor’s office, I’m between a rock and a hard place. I can’t walk out or complain too much. I don’t want the doctor hating me or rushing. I want her to be gentle with her needle.
The doctor finally sees me with her assistant—who happens to have lovely blue eyes which I focus on like a lifeline because I must sit “completely still and not move at all.” In fact I’m afraid to breathe, afraid my breast will move and the doctor won’t be able to complete the procedure. The doctor already told me, before she started, that she might not be able to do the biopsy because my breasts are too small. Or might be too small. She might need to send me elsewhere for a different procedure. . . . NOT what a terrified woman wants to hear a week before she goes on vacation.
Now what I want to know is why my radiologist sent me to this doctor for a biopsy in the first place. My radiologist has been looking at pictures of my breasts for over 30 years; doesn’t SHE know if they’re the right size for the procedure? Why didn’t SHE think of this? These are the geniuses who went to top medical schools, work in fancy Park Avenue offices, and ask to be paid out of network. My pathologist and her buddies are paid thousands of dollars to photograph breasts and palpate them. Not bad work if you can get it, right?
After the photos and exam, some patients like me with so-called “dense” breasts, get to enjoy (or endure) slimy goop squirted on each boob followed by the radiologist pressing her MRI wand around and around inward toward my nipple, like a shark circling in for a kill. While it’s unnerving and uncomfortable, when the wand lingers and presses on one spot, it’s a sensual paradise compared with the needle biopsy.
The biopsy doctor says my breasts are borderline. Borderline? Really? 34 B is borderline? What happens to all the flat chested women? No, don’t tell me. I don’t need to know.
The biopsy doctor says she’ll try her best, but the area is tiny, and she might not be able see it. Or even if she locates the spot, it could slide away when she pushes in the needle. And she can’t push the needle in too far, or else it will pierce all the way through the other side of my breast and an alarm will go off. Is this what every patient wants to hear? I mean is this TMI or do you find it comforting to have Biopsy 101 right before the doctor numbs you?
The biopsy doctor maintains a running conversation with her assistant about the challenges of extracting a lab sample from my breast. She also tells me what I will feel and when the machine will make a whooshing noise. “You are SUCH a great patient,” she compliments me as if I’m five years old. “I wish everyone would sit so still.”
I am barely breathing, hoping against hope that if I’m a good girl, she’ll succeed in doing both biopsies, and I can live happily ever after. The doctor has a Eureka moment, then extracts one calcification and some tissue. “Got it!” She shoots in a tag so the pathologist will see it on next year’s mammogram. “Sorry, I can’t do the second procedure because I can’t see other the area well enough even under magnification.”
“So what happens now? Don’t I still need the second procedure?”
“Ask your pathologist. That’s her decision.” She scoots out of the room “so I can send this to the lab right away and maybe get the answer Thursday afternoon.”
Did I mention that both of these doctors close their offices at 3 PM on Thursday afternoons so they can beat the traffic out to the Hamptons? I found this out on Thursday afternoon at 3:15. Since my biopsy was done midday on Tuesday, and it takes 48 hours for the lab results, I was warned that I might not get the results till Friday. Nobody told me that it was theoretically possible that I might have to SUFFER and SWEAT through the weekend to learn whether I had cancer or not, while the doctors lounge by their pools or plant their gardens. Both doctors promise that Friday morning is the absolute latest I will find out.
This turns out to be a lie by omission. What neither doctor mentioned was that BOTH doctors leave their offices Thursdays at 3 PM in the summer. To make matters worse, my internist and my gynecologist—whom I called in a fit of panic—also leave for the weekend by Friday morning. Finally, my husband calls the pathologist’s office and schmoozes the front desk receptionist, begging her to call the pathologist. “Please have the doctor call my wife ANY time, today, the sooner, the better. She won’t last through the weekend.”
Finally, the pathologist calls at about 1 pm on Friday. She’s driving her car in South Hampton. The results of the biopsy are benign, but I still need the second procedure to make sure the second “suspicious” patch is also benign.
“What KIND of second procedure? The biopsy doctor could barely manage to do the first biopsy, and didn’t even try for the second.”
“There’s different ways to perform a biopsy,” she explains. “Sitting, standing, lying down. I’ll have to look at the films on Monday and call you when I’m back in the office. If you want, I’ll try to schedule another procedure before you leave on vacation.”
No, thank you. One bruised breast is more than enough for me before I go on an eight hour flight with my autistic adult daughter. I’ll see you in September, Dr. Whoever-You-Are, who will do whatever needs to be done. I can’t live without these doctors, but living WITH them is one more reason I need a vacation.