Not long ago, I got another year older. I’m still pretty young, less than 40, and I’m not totally afraid of that number. When we were in highschool, my best friend and I used to say, “When we’re 40, we’ll be absolutely amazing”. It was a joke. We thought it was a silly thing to say. My best friend had heard it on TV or something and just kept saying it.
But now that the year is coming close, I think it might be true. I’m more in control of my life than I have been in a long time. I do feel like I’ve grown up a lot in the last decade or so, and have made so many changes for the better. But musing on those is for another post.
This post exists to assert that nothing makes you fear getting older more than finding a bloody great lump in your breast on your birthday!
That’s right. It wasn’t there when I woke up in the morning, but when I went to bed that night, it was there. It was big and it hurt. WTF.
So I went to the doctor the very next day, expecting to be told it was nothing. Instead, they referred me to the breast cancer clinic at the hospital – one of those urgent referrals, where they have to see you within two weeks. Well, that’s enough to put you off your prosecco for a few days. (Disclaimer: my jokey tone in this post is just my personality – my way of dealing with scary stuff. I am not being flippant about this very serious topic.)
Just a cyst?
I duly went to the breast cancer clinic, once again expecting it to be nothing. Dr Google, as well as several friends, had assured me that these things were usually cysts. I thought the consultant at the breast clinic would be able to perform a procedure called Fine Needle Aspiration, which means they draw the fluid out of the cyst with a needle. I was hoping that she would simply drain the cyst and the damn thing would go away.
But instead, the consultant felt my lump and did the doctor thing where she said “hmmm”. Then she sent me to another part of the hospital to have an ultrasound. Okay, so it was not a cyst.
At this point, I was glad that I’d brought a friend along with me. At first I had told her I wanted to go alone when she offered, but she convinced me that I shouldn’t. If this ever happens to you, please bring someone you trust along! And don’t expect to drive yourself home after. Get someone to drive for you or take public transport or a cab.
So, as I waited nervously for my ultrasound, I believed it could still be a cyst. The ultrasound technician came in and brings a picture up on the screen. “Oh no, that’s not fluid, that’s tissue,” she says. And then immediately sends me for a mammogram.
My first mammogram
As I am not yet 40, I had never had a mammogram. Those who have had them have helpfully (italics denote sarcasm) described them as the sensation of slamming your breast in a door. These sort of comments meant that I awaited my sudden mammogram with no small amount of trepidation, especially because my breast already hurt from the bloody great lump in it. It didn’t help that I had no more than 5 minutes to mentally prepare myself for the procedure.
So allow me to reassure anyone who hasn’t yet had a mammogram that it is NOT like having your breast slammed in a door. It was very slightly uncomfortable but actually not too bad at all. The woman who performed the procedure was very professional, gentle and kind about all of it. She knew I was worried and upset and did her best to reassure me.
The way the mammogram works is that your breast needs to be compressed between two plates so they can take a picture of the inner tissue. The technician gently helps you position your breast on one plate, and tells you where to put your arms and legs. Once you are positioned, another plate comes very slowly and gently down to push your breast against the other plate. Each breast had pictures taken from two angles, which involved compressing between top and bottom plates, and then between two plates on either side of the breast.
It did not hurt, even in my breast that was already sore. It mostly just felt a bit awkward, as one would expect in any situation where you’re naked among strangers and in a confined space. When you are invited for a mammogram, please remember that it’s nothing to fear. Undetected breast changes are much more scary than a mammogram could ever be, so never miss your mammogram!
And then we proceeded to the ‘b-word’
The b-word is biopsy. After the mammogram, they looked at me on the ultrasound again and decided they definitely needed to perform what’s officially called a Core Needle Biopsy. They have a special needle (which I didn’t look at to avoid passing out) that draws out the tissue, and in my case they needed to take 3 samples but I think that varies depending on the size/position of your lump.
I do not like needles.
But it also wasn’t as bad as it sounded. They put a local anaesthetic into the area first, and that small needle stung only slightly. After that I couldn’t feel a thing. The biopsy needle makes a popping noise when it (I assume) goes in and then pulls the bit of tissue out. The noise is slightly alarming and you feel pressure, but it really is nothing to worry about. I had a lovely nurse there who held my hand. (BTW I love the NHS, just saying.)
Afterwards, it will be sore for a while and your entire breast will be bruised. Make sure you wear a comfy bra with no underwire. I rolled my old maternity ones back out. Good thing I’m not organised enough to have gotten rid of them! Anyway, a month later I’m feeling and looking back to normal from the bruising.
The hardest thing after the biopsy for me was that I had to wait over Christmas for the results, and Christmas involved an overseas trip to visit family that was very stressful. I just about managed to cope, but the timing of all of this was crap. However, I suppose no time is a good time for a breast cancer scare.
When it comes to biopsy results, the old phrase “no news is good news” is probably apt. If you don’t hear from them after waiting two weeks, give them a call and they should be able to tell you good news. If it were bad, they wouldn’t be waiting around.
In my case, I’m very happy to say that my lump turned out to be benign. I have a rather less alarming condition called Fibrocystic Breasts. It means my hormones are going a bit wonky as I approach the menopause years, and that’s caused my breasts to grow funky lumps. My lumps are totally harmless, although I do need to get any future lumps checked out anyway, as the condition could cause complacency about future lumps that could indeed be cancerous.
I thought I would share a few things I learned from this experience. I was frantically googling everything I could find about breast lumps after I found mine, and it was good to come across reassuring information, which is what I aim to offer here. There is also some scary stuff on breast cancer support boards. Don’t read those before you know the results of your biopsy. I’m sure they’re a great source of support if you do have cancer, but before your diagnosis is set, they’re only going to make you worry more.
A few other words of humble advice:
- Check your breasts regularly, and go to the doctor IMMEDIATELY if anything changes or worries you. Don’t wait to see if it goes away. Don’t bury your head in the sand. You have nothing to lose by getting it checked out, and everything to lose by ignoring it.
- You may end up being poked and prodded and going through some uncomfortable procedures, but none of them are as bad as they sound.
- TELL trusted friends or family about what’s going on with you. Don’t go through the worry alone. In my case, I went ahead and told all my Facebook friends, who responded with an enormous outpouring of support and wisdom.
- By sharing my story with friends, I also learned that more women than you think go through this stuff. Cancer or not, this is difficult but you are not alone.
- If it turns out to be fibrocystic breasts like I have, try taking a supplement with Vitamin E, Evening Primrose Oil and/or Starflower Oil. They have not been fully clinically proven to work, but some studies have shown they’re effective and not potentially harmful in any way. In my case, I’ve been taking supplements for a month and my lump has disappeared.