By Teri Borseti
Ladies, you’ve just finished with your annual mammogram, and what a relief since the procedure is about as much fun as squeezing your breasts in a refrigerator door. It’s something we all dread but at the same time we’re thankful that such a test exists. So off you go, knowing you won’t even have to start dreading the next one for at least 11 months.
But a few days later you receive an unexpected call from your gynecologist’s office and one of his staff members tells you that the radiologist found something unusual on your films. Nothing to worry about, happens all the time, they say as they make another appointment for six months later. Most of us file the info on a shelf in the back of our minds. No point in torturing yourself with “What if’s”. But what if?
A little Internet research can either put your mind at ease or send you into a tailspin of anxiety. The truth is that 50% of all women over age 50 (and 10% under 50) have had the same thing happen to them. The spots, which are as tiny as a crystal of salt, are calcium deposits. Some are caused by normal aging or trauma to the breast. You’ll be advised not to panic or worry, but that’s easier said than done.
You won’t be able to tell the calcifications are there because there are no symptoms. And women whose calcifications are located in the back of the breast near the chest wall might find the mammograms a bit more uncomfortable. Mammogram techs may seem like sadists as they push and squeeze your breast a hundred different ways to get the right shot. But refusing to have the test really isn’t an option.
There are two kinds of breast calcifications. The first is macrocalcifications, which are benign bits of calcium not linked to breast cancer. The second is microcalcifications, which are tiny bits that form clusters or patterns. This may mean there’s extra cell activity in the breast tissue and that it could possibly be an early indication of breast cancer.
Before you panic and start imagining that you have breast cancer, it’s important to know that these calcifications can be caused by inflammation, calcium collected in a milk duct, benign fluid as in a cyst, or a benign growth known as fibroadenoma.
Your doctor will request a six-month follow up so the radiologist can compare the films and look for any changes. Suspicious calcifications that show rapidly dividing cells may be biopsied with a stereotactic core biopsy, which involves inserting a needle into the calcification and sending it to pathology. Some women may require a surgical biopsy if results are inconclusive.
In recent years the awareness of breast cancer has increased considerably. Those little pink ribbons that are seen everywhere remind us all that preventative health care is the most important kind.
Postmenopausal women are more likely to develop calcifications but doctors report that 80 percent of calcifications are benign.
One in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. This figure has increased from one in 15 in 1977. There are many factors that contribute to the rise in breast cancer including exposure to carcinogens such as household products, deodorant, shampoo, and other toxins. Other factors include lifestyle, environment, age and heredity. Reports now show that women who smoke or drink regularly are exposed to more free radicals that can also have an effect.
There’s no way to avoid calcifications and that’s why it’s so important to have regular mammograms. A healthy diet and regular exercise are also always good ways to take better care of yourself. And don’t forget those self-exams.
It’s hard not to feel uneasy but worry is also pointless. By asking friends, you may learn that several of them have been sent back for another mammogram every six months just to be on the safe side.
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To view the ThirdAge video on Breast Calcifications, click here.
Teri Borseti has been a freelance writer for over 20 years. Her byline has appeared in numerous publications including The Boston Globe, Ocean Home Magazine, Boston- Common Magazine. She is also the author of “Memories of Maverick”. Please visit http://www.teriborseti.com/