I hope you’re comfortable, because this is a long one.
At 22, most people are living their lives in the comforting knowledge that generally, things aren’t going to go wrong. We tend to have this bubble of youth protecting us from the evils of the world – mortgages, taxes, arthritis, peeing multiple times in the middle of the night, etc. It’s not really a sense of feeling invincible (although the way some of my friends go about a sesh might suggest otherwise), but a sense of distance – the idea that these things happen to other, older or unhealthy people. One of my best friends is a nurse, and despite knowing in detail all the risks involved, she will use sunbeds multiple times a week and instead of using protection in the sun, she oils up her skin, basically cooking it. The idea that something bad could occur as a result of these actions only crosses her mind long enough for her to dismiss it. After all, she goes to the gym most days, gets more than her 5 a day, and drinks more smoothies and green tea than most people I know. But youth, lifestyle and genetics doesn’t have to matter when you just get unlucky.
Like so many other women my age, I had never taken the time to check my breasts for lumps. It had been an assumption of mine that lumps and bumps would be pretty obvious, and that I would notice one if it ever came up. This was not the case. I was actually at a surgical consultation for a breast reduction when I was told that I had a lump. It had taken a lot for me to bite the bullet and schedule this appointment, sacrificing £150 of my (not so hard earned) money and I was quite nervous about taking a step towards having a part of my body sliced into. But the appointment went well, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable, even when lying there during the examination. In fact, I was quite relaxed, not paying attention as my surgeon pressed into the flesh of my left breast for a few seconds before moving to the right. It was when he spent a good while touching a particular area of my right breast that I looked up at his face, only to be met with a look of concern.
“Now I don’t want you to worry, but you do have a prominence of breast tissue just here… I hesitate to call it a lump, because you’re so young. Give me your hand, can you feel it?”
The hesitation to call it a lump apparently didn’t last long, because that’s what he referred to it as for the rest of the appointment. And it is a lump. It’s very deep in my breast, so deep that I take a good while trying to find it every time – and for a second or two I am overwhelmed with a sense of relief, thinking ‘thank god, it’s gone’. But it hasn’t disappeared yet. It’s still there, hard and about the same size as a marble, not doing much, just chilling. It moves a little if I push it in one direction or the other and although it was completely painless before my period came, it got really sore afterwards (but I don’t know if that’s because I’ve been madly prodding it for the past fortnight).
The reason I’m telling you all of this is because these details are important. Knowing what is going on inside your body means that there are no hidden surprises. But even if the lump throws up no red flags (typically, soft, smooth, moveable round lumps are cysts which are benign), it’s important to see a doctor to get it checked out. The first thing I did when I left the surgeon’s office was schedule an appointment with my doctor, and then I told a few close friends about the exciting news that I had a date for my operation, but there was an annoying lump I needed to get checked out first. I had completely dismissed the idea that anything was going to go wrong, because I’m fairly healthy, I don’t eat processed foods, I don’t smoke, I barely drink, and there is no history of breast cancer in my family. But when a few friends started asking me if I was okay and expressing that it must be horrible not knowing until I see a doctor, I suddenly considered what I would have to do if something was amiss. And of course, I hopped on Google. This is both the best and worst thing I could have done, because it gave me a lot of information about what to expect from the medical process of having this checked out, BUT it also directed me to a lot of forums that showed people in their 20s (like me) with no family history of breast cancer (like me) but who had been on the pill since their teens (like me) with hard lumps the size of a marble that ended up being diagnosed as cancer. And even before that terrifying diagnosis, they had to have a biopsy, which according to the women on all these forums, can be agonising.
There wasn’t really a moment where my stomach dropped and I realised that I had something to worry about (potentially, anyway), but I just started feeling really shaken – not even because I was thinking of the worst, but because I was annoyed that this was happening to me, that there were all these tests I had to put myself through when I really need to be concentrating on my dissertation. I couldn’t really focus because I just felt so down, and I spent a few days that week sat on the sofa looking out of the window, feeling bitter. On day 4 of carrying this weight on my shoulders, I broke. I was sat in bed thinking about nothing, when I just started crying. I cried until Fahad got home, and then I cried some more. The stress that had been bubbling under the surface all week had finally got to me. And that was okay, to have one moment where I let something get to me. But I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and tried to put the whole thing to the back of my mind.
The wait to go to the doctor was too long. I should have really asked for an emergency appointment just to get it out of the way, but I didn’t. I went in, he re-examined me, said he’s incredibly sure that it’s nothing to worry about, that it feels like a clump of cysts, and that I can go and have an ultrasound at the breast clinic to prove it. The reassurance finally alleviated some of the pressure, and I haven’t worried at all since. Now I’m just waiting on an ultrasound appointment to confirm that it’s nothing – no big deal.
But one thing that I’ve taken from the whole experience is that it can be a big deal. Women aren’t referred for regular mammograms until their 40s, and we are supposed to be checking ourselves regularly in the meantime. This means that most people my age (with or without breasts, because you don’t actually need a pair of boobs to get breast cancer) have all the responsibility of keeping an eye on ourselves, but very little information on how to do so. Below I’m going to link some resources on how to check your breasts for lumps properly, signs to look for that aren’t lumps, and information on how regularly you ought to be doing it. I have been lucky, but I could have just as easily been unlucky, and if I had been more aware, perhaps this would have all been dealt with long ago (not in the middle of my final term of uni, for example).
(UPDATE: This story unfortunately didn’t end here. To read more about the journey my breasts have taken, click here.)