When Tempi Wilkinson had her first mammogram in November of 2013, she realized two things. One, the experience brought her a lot of unexpected anxiety and misery. And two, it shouldn’t have to be that way.
“I felt like I was giving myself a death sentence,” said Wilkinson.
It was a stark contrast to what she thought the experience was going to be like. In fact, at only 37 years old, she didn’t even realize she should get a mammogram yet.
“I was naïve,” said Wilkinson, “I wasn’t even thinking about it; I thought mammograms were for older people and since I wasn’t even 40 yet, I couldn’t have breast cancer.”
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Once her doctor informed her that she needed a ‘baseline’ mammogram, Wilkinson said she felt very positive and upbeat about it. Since both she and her mother had uterine cancer scares previously and her father passed away from cancer at age 53, she viewed it as a smart choice and a good thing to do for her health.
That was, up until the day of her mammogram.
“I was instantly nauseous,” Wilkinson said about walking into the Novant Health Breast Center that day, “I was scared and I wanted to cry.”
Overcome with negative thoughts about what the exam would reveal and her own mortality, she began texting several women in her life including her mother and two girlfriends.
She was shocked to find out that one friend who had her own cancer scare, had since put off her mammogram for a year and a half, while the other, who was 43, had never even had one.
Ironically, the mammogram itself ended up being, Wilkinson said, a piece of cake. The procedure was not painful and the tech that assisted her was kind and funny. The emotions involved were the toughest part.
“It was very sterile. There were no positive or empowering feelings involved and I left with miserable anxiety,” she said.
After it was over, she talked to her friend that never had a mammogram and told her they should’ve done it together and had lunch or drinks afterward.
“When I’ve been at some of my lowest points, having a friend around has always helped,” she said.
This notion weighed on her mind for a few months, until March 2014, when she contacted Farrah Dixon, whom she had met through mutual friends five years prior.
“I knew she was the perfect person to go to and ask her to get involved due to the fight she had recently been through with her Mother [who passed from breast cancer],” she said.
Dixon was also 37 when she had her first mammogram last year, and recalls feeling emotions similar to Wilkinson’s.
“I was extremely apprehensive and scared, especially since my mom had died of breast cancer,” said Dixon.
“I cried through the entire appointment and was alone,” she said.
Dixon has been active in the fight against breast cancer since her mom’s passing in 2009, after a six-year battle. In addition to working with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of the Triad and the Board of Advisors for the Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center, she set up a fund at Wake Forest called ‘Lamps for Deed,’ that places bedside lamps in patient rooms on the oncology floor.
“One of the nicest things someone did for my mom was bring a lamp and sit it on her bedside table so the harsh overhead lights in her room could be turned off,” said Dixon.
When Wilkinson approached Dixon in March, they both agreed that they wanted to change the stigma around mammograms.
So a few months later in June 2014, they began working on ‘My Breast Friend,’ a non-profit organization that will work to change the idea of mammograms as medical, sterile, a hassle or even a death sentence, to a positive, fun and empowering choice.
“I want women to be excited to get their testing by making it a girls’ day out experience,” said Wilkinson, “I want to encourage women to look forward to them while encouraging the special women in their lives to do it too.”
My Breast Friend’s first event will be held from from 5 to 8 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Peninsula Yacht Club in Cornelius.
The free event will include a variety of vendors, free makeovers, swag bags, food and drinks and a champagne and diamond toast sponsored by Perry’s of SouthPark. Guest speakers will offer information about the mammogram process and the importance of early detection, while the Novant Mobile Mammography Unit will perform on-site mammograms for those who are interested.
“With insurance and a driver’s license, they are able to go outside to the beautiful mammogram coach and get a mammogram on site in as little as ten minutes,” said Wilkinson.
In the future, Wilkinson and Dixon hope to have at least two My Breast Friend events a year, one in the North Charlotte area, as well as in South Charlotte.
“[Our hope] is to bring awareness,” said Dixon.
“But more specifically, we want to help remove the fear and anxiety that comes along with getting a mammogram by providing a support system of ‘Breast Friends’.”