|For obvious reasons, I don’t have a lot of photos that relate to this topic. So here’s a tentative visual link for ya.|
Hello there! If you’re familiar with me then perhaps you know that around a month ago, a lump was discovered in my right breast. If this is news to you then click here to find out more (and to find some resources about self-examination and breast cancer awareness, too). Today’s post is just an update for those of you who want to know what the next step is in the process and a bit of an embarrassing bare-all moment for me, because it’s been quite hard to admit that this has been as emotionally difficult as it has.
So after a referral from my GP, off I went to the breast clinic and checked myself into the lurid waiting area (note to interior designers of hospitals – your wacky colour schemes are never appreciated). Waiting rooms make me feel uncomfortable at the best of times. It’s not only the cattle-like feeling of being penned and herded, but the palpable sense of apprehension. For me, this discomfort was amplified somewhat by the beautiful, bald-headed woman sat opposite me, reminding me why I was there.
Had I, up until this point, considered that I might have cancer? Of course. But I had always believed otherwise. Coming face to face with a real life person who had presumably once been in that waiting room for ‘just an ultrasound’ was a very unsettling thing.
My name was called, and I accompanied a lovely nurse along a yellow corridor (again, designers – why?!) to a dark room in which I was examined. At this point, I was quite at ease. Oddly, the sterile conditions of actual procedure rooms are quite comforting to me. I liked watching the ultrasound screen – it felt like I was pregnant and looking fondly upon a little life-ruining lump of my own. Then came the words, “Well, luckily I don’t think it looks worrying, but let’s just do a biopsy now.”
Before I explain what I did next, let me give you some context. When the surgeon first found the lump I went home and developed a mental pathway map of my options and possible outcomes. Then I researched in detail every single one of these options and outcomes, from best case to worst case scenario. During this research, I read endless accounts from other women about their agonising biopsy experiences. Logic tells me that people only post reviews of anything that happens to them if it goes badly – I’ll usually only review something in tripadvisor if I don’t have a great experience – and this means that the average is skewed. I am sure that lots of people have very little pain and discomfort during these procedures and don’t write about it on the internet. But the seed was planted, and the word biopsy inspired dread in me for all the wrong reasons.
Also, more generally, I wasn’t feeling great. I was on my final day of battling a flu that involved a fever so formidable that it caused me to hallucinate a glowing purple man standing at the foot of my bed. I had a Spanish test the next day, and another the following week, and an essay on Paradise Lost due the week after. I’d been thinking about breast surgery day and night for weeks – often with excitement, but also with a lot of anxiety. Individually, these things are manageable. Until that point, the combination, alongside my usual to-do list, was starting to become stressful. The concept of a biopsy felt devastating.
So I burst into tears.
I couldn’t quite articulate at the time what the problem was, but it was more than my general fear of medical procedures. I was alone. I still felt weak from having the flu. I was told by more than one person that I would just be having an ultrasound. I didn’t know that this was even a possibility. I felt unprepared. I felt ambushed.
I’m really sorry if this sounds very overdramatic and self-indulgent. There are women out there who could do everything I struggle with on a daily basis without a care. Those women aren’t even that exceptional, because generally, women are some of the strongest people out there. I’m afraid I am a rather weak member of team mujer.
I kept crying and tried to explain myself through restrained tears that were equal parts shock and shame, in that horrible voice people get when they’re suppressing sobs, but I don’t think my point got across. Eventually, I was given the option to refuse the biopsy. Something that felt like relief ran through me, but I kept crying until I had my clothes back on. It just felt so… unfair?
After this, I waited an hour for an appointment with a consultant to discuss my next steps. The hour’s cooling off period was helpful in clarifying why I had gotten so upset. The consultant did another exam with a medical student, but I was still too upset to even make my well prepared joke: “I’ve never had so many people touching my boobs as I have in the past few weeks!” I think I’ll save it for my surgeon next week.
Again, I was told that the mass is not worrying. I also, through some spying upon the doctor’s notes, discovered that it’s a suspected fibroadenoma (tumour, but non-cancerous) which are common in young women who have been on the pill since their teens. It is also asymmetrical and 35mm. What is worrying, however, is whether this might pose a problem for my reduction. I asked if I might be able to have the biopsy done under general anaesthetic while I’m having the surgery, or have the lump removed under the same conditions. The answer was vague, closer to the negative end of the spectrum but didn’t seem entirely impossible. You might think I’m being stupid (and at moments, so do I), but if they’re so sure the mass isn’t worrying then I’d rather not put myself through a potentially traumatising procedure unless I know there are no other options. As a contingency, I’ve arranged an appointment to have a biopsy in a few weeks anyway, in case my options very swiftly dwindle. At this point, my concern isn’t really whether or not I have cancer. I probably don’t, and I don’t want to be dramatic about the small possibility that this is something sinister. Besides, a mastectomy isn’t the least appealing thing in the world to a girl who has been trying to get rid of her boobs for years.
Before I finish, and thank you for reading this long passage of emotions if by some miracle you reached this far, I just want to say a few things that I am feeling about the whole experience with a bit of hindsight. I think my GP or someone in the referral/booking process should have been able to tell me to prepare for an eventuality of having a biopsy. If I had known, I would have cancelled the appointment when I knew I was ill. I would have asked for some anti-anxiety drugs. I would have got a better night’s sleep. I would have washed my hair. I would have taken painkillers. I wouldn’t have gone alone. Being told, and not asked if I was comfortable with having one was another mistake. I wasn’t even given the option to consent, which isn’t really okay. And had I not eventually been told that I had a choice, I would have gone through with the procedure in a state of sheer terror – which is probably a contributing factor to all the traumatised people writing about their horrible experiences out there. I love the NHS, but I felt really let down by this experience and heartbroken that an institution I believe in is starting to disintegrate under the stress of the government.