When I was 18, in January of 2007, I found a lump in my left breast. It was about the size of a garden pea sat near to the surface of my skin. It was hard to touch and impossible to ignore. I remember the moment I found it as clearly as if it just happened yesterday. And I remember every moment after that too.
Ten years ago last week I had it removed. This is the story of me and my boobs…
When you find a lump in your boobs you might be tempted to consult Dr Google. I did. It told me that at 18 years old I probably had a cyst. It was probably hormonal. It was probably nothing to be worried about but I should go and see my GP anyway. Here’s something else I learned- when you phone up your GP and explain to the receptionist why you would like an appointment to see the Doctor, that you’ve found a lump in your breast, you don’t have to wait for an appointment. You can pretty much walk straight in.
It was a male GP, of course. I don’t know who was more nervous to be honest. I remember him summoning a female nurse into the room after explaining to me that he would need to take a feel. It was all so hushed, so gentle and so calm. He got the short straw that day having me as a patient, poor man. I remember clocking him giving the nurse a nod, and then telling me he was just going to make a quick phone call. He would need to make a written referral, he told me, to a place called The Mermaid Centre, but that he was to call them and check appointment availability and would then fax the referral through. The nurse stayed with me, asking where I was from, how long had I been in Falmouth for, what was I studying, whether I needed a glass of water. I even remember answering all of her questions, that I was in my first year but was just in the process of swapping courses, that I’d come as far away from home as possible, that my Mum – who I wanted more than anything else right at that moment – was almost 400 miles away at work. Just the normal conversations you have with hero’s of medical staff, right? Well, it was that same week I found myself at the hospital. At this Mermaid Centre the GP had mentioned. As soon I walked in it hit me- the waiting room was full of middle aged women, all looking apprehensive, all staring at the garish pink posters covering the walls telling us to check our boobs regularly. Duh. Why else would we have all been there?
I don’t remember much of this visit. I remember, having had everyone reassure me that the lump was probably just a cyst (which are very common and seemingly harmless), the medic performing the needle biopsy suggested that the lump was not a cyst. The cells didn’t scrape away from it in the way she had expected, or something. There was lots of waiting around for test results, lots of cups of tea and sympathetic looks being exchanged among the roomful of women. I remember calling my Mum, who was at work, and telling her that all I knew so far was that it wasn’t a cyst and that the Doctor’s have been asking about the medical history – breast cancer related – of my family. A topic I was absolutely clueless about as it had never crossed my mind that I might need to know. I remember Mum’s desperately optimistic “no one had breast cancer, it’s okay” at the other end of the line, when really neither of us were feeling very optimistic at all. The results were as expected- not a cyst. And as hoped for- not cancer. But I was to return in a month for repeat tests to check what the lump was doing.
When I went back a month later there were no changes. The lump hadn’t grown, it hadn’t turned into anything else, and I didn’t have any more of them. All good news, but it still needed to come out.
The operation appointment came through quickly as well, it was to happen the following month, during the Easter break. Thankfully my parents, both being in the teaching profession, were also on their Easter break and were able to come with me. I had a plastic surgeon performing the operation, the surgeon of choice for women in the region requiring mastectomies or an invasive lumpectomy, so I was in good hands. He wouldn’t butcher my boobs, which as a young woman was a pretty major concern, and the scarring would be minimal. To achieve this would mean him needing to cut along the edge of the areola, accessing the breast via the semi-removed nipple and then removing the lump via this route. The nipple would be reattached and, once healed, no one would be able to notice a thing unless they looked really, really closely. Topless sunbathing holidays in the South of France with the girls were back on the list.
When I was wheeled back to the ward after the operation I remember my Mum stroking my head and telling me I looked very grey and did I feel ok. I felt awful, but I felt relieved. My Doctor came to check on me too, adding that the lump was a lot deeper then they’d originally thought and it took longer to remove, as a result I’d lost a bit of blood and would probably feel wiped out for a while. I needed to take it easy he said. I also needed to wear a special bra to support my (very tender) breast, and avoid any lifting until I was healed. Of course I had an easy get out, because for me that would be the end of it. I would heal, I would go for a check up, and then I’d get to go and live my life like any other woman who’d just turned nineteen. What I hadn’t accounted for was the little crater where the lump used to sit. Or that on cold days the scar tissue would cause a throbbing pain, a pain that no one could see and no one but me could feel. Or, that five years later I would discover breastfeeding wouldn’t be quite so straightforward.
For a small pair of tits, they’ve managed to cause me quite a lot of trouble.
But I was lucky. So, so lucky. I checked my boobs, I saw a GP straight away, got the specialist referral and got it sorted. And that’s why I’m sharing my story. It’s one thing to be aware that it’s important to check your boobs for abnormalities, it’s quite another to actually get over your embarrassment about getting your tits out in the least appealing situation I can think of. The machines are cold and hard and the prodding and poking is intrusive. I know. But isn’t knowing so much better than not?
Check your boobs – thoroughly and regularly – and get yourself to a Doctor asap if there’s anything not quite right. PLEASE.
Places and people that you may find useful:
UK based charity – Coppafeel
Singapore based charity – Singapore Cancer Society Breast Cancer Campaign
(please note there are several charities and help pages online, these are just a few examples and I do not in anyway endorse the above over any others available)
Top image by Bett Norris