What I Learned From My Breast Cancer Scare: A Lucky Writer Shares Her Story
Let me begin by addressing the underwire-contained elephant in the room: my breasts are tiny, and always have been. Aside from a brief spill into the B-cup range due to my first foray into the world of birth control, I’ve always been blessed with the ability to wander around braless with most outfits. Cleavage may be nothing but a pipe dream for me, but these 34As of mine encouraged many a halter top purchase in my post-adolescent years. In short, I’ve always loved my little mosquito bites.
But as I sat in a frigid waiting room awaiting a chest biopsy three weeks ago, I found myself cursing their presence for the first time.
It all began back in 2005, when I was walking home after taking the SAT and noticed a burning, pinchable mass underneath my left breast. In a fit that I can only now attribute to years of watching Degrassi, I was suddenly sure of my impending doom. I learned quickly, however, that the lump was a benign infection called mastitis, a condition that recurred several months later, this time in my right breast.
And that is how I began giving myself monthly self-exams while I was still in braces.
Fast-forward through one prom, two graduations, four months living in Europe, one move to New York City and roughly 102 months later, and the pain in my left mosquito bite returned.
In the week that followed, I monitored the intermittent pain with a pathological resolution. I became a woman obsessed, constantly updating a note in my phone dedicated to the degree of pain (moderate to stabby), location (directly in the center of the tissue) and duration (two to three minutes). When I woke up one morning and felt a different type of ache crawl across its familiar location all the way to my armpit, I scheduled an appointment to have it checked out.
That Tuesday morning, I sat through my very first ultrasound. The technician slathered an aqua-blue gel from the top of my ribcage to my neck. I felt like I was wading in a kiddie pool of Jello. After 25 minutes of poking and gliding, I wiped off the last of the slime and suited up. “The doctor will see you now,” the technician said.
Well, you probably can guess where this is going: while seated in a tiny, dark, windowless room and surrounded by x-rays of my own boobs, the doctor told me she had picked up on a tiny mass behind my left nipple. It was probably nothing, but it could be something, she said; we just need to check it out, she said; the biopsy will be painless, she said. "Okay?" she asked. "Okay," I lied.
She didn’t say cancer. She didn’t need to.
I bet you can guess what came next, too: I sprinted out of that room and into the closest changing room I could find, a place where I could bawl in private. After my test, I walked my mosquito bites the 60 blocks home.
Which brings me to where we started: the biopsy. After the procedure (involving a very large needle, more ultrasound gel and a significant amount of blood), I had five days to kill before I could expect the results. The news was to come in an email—"The Email."
I wish I could say I was strong, or positive, or strong-willed during those five days. I wish I hadn’t listened to hours of Fleetwood Mac’s weepiest ballads, and I wish I had been able to engage, distraction-free, in my friends’ candyfloss brunch conversations. I wish I had been able to put my “situation” into perspective, to consider the extraordinary family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances of mine who have actually battled—and valiantly, defeated—the disease.
But I didn’t do any of those things.
I got The Email that next Tuesday, exactly five days after my biopsy. As the physician wrote, the mass appeared to be something called a fibroadenoma: a solid, noncancerous tumor that most often occurs in women under the age of 30. And just as good news tends to do, my normal life resumed almost immediately—commencing with two immensely large margaritas.
I'll never forget what those five days spent anticipating my biopsy results felt like. Despite my health, young age and family history essentially clean of breast cancer, the disease and all of its many implications remained at the forefront of my mind throughout. And as much as I tried to think both positively and logically, I became a walking, talking host of toxic negativity.
But those five days in limbo ultimately benefitted my psyche in more ways than I would like to admit. Breasts are beautiful, yes, but they can be very, very scary. We know the statistics, after all: one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer at some point in her life. The numbers for those who will face a breast cancer scare of some kind are much higher—data that becomes even more real when it involves your mom or your best friend—or you.
I’m no expert, of course, but if it ever comes time for you to face a scare like mine, you may benefit from keeping these lessons in mind:
#1: Trust your body.
You know better than anyone what’s normal and what’s not in your own skin. To wit, the so-called “normal” aches and pains you routinely experience are likely apples to someone else’s oranges. By all means, ask your parents for their virtual diagnoses, but the bottom line remains that it’s your body and no one else’s. Don’t be afraid to pursue a threatening symptom; it will give you peace of mind, if nothing else.
Which brings me to my next point…
#2: Find a physician you trust.
Unlike my boyfriend, who hasn’t been to a general practitioner since he had mono in 2011, I’ve found myself ritualistically obsessed with getting check-ups. Live by the mindset that your doctor should not be reserved for emergencies—because all too often, an “emergency” is too late.
#3: Keep everything in perspective.
When I was a senior in college, I had the immense honor of befriending a group of children who were battling cancer of various types, in various stages. In all the many hours we spent together, I never heard one child complain—about anything, ever—except when it came to the "normal" childhood topics: homework, sibling bullying, etc. I still think about these brave little souls and how overwhelmingly positive they and their families remained in the face of chronic illness. Even in the worst of times, there was so much about which to be happy.
#4: Don’t worry.
The aforementioned incident aside, I’m largely a staunch proponent of what I like to call “good vibes.” “Good vibes,” the lifestyle, revolves around the belief that your thoughts can affect the universe’s actions. And while worrying profusely gave me a tangible outlet for my all-consuming fear of my biopsy results, it didn’t get me anywhere.
Scientifically speaking, the outcome of my biopsy was entirely out of my control. Just as you respect your body by going to the doctor in the first place, it’s absolutely crucial to respect your mind by remaining optimistic. We have two choices, according to the fabulously wise Abe Lincoln: we can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have rose bushes. The decision is yours, but one is quantifiably healthier and more productive.
#5: Be grateful.
All that matters is that the people you love are happy and healthy; everything else is just sprinkles on a sundae. If you have your health, you have everything.
Get yourself checked annually—it could save your life. For information on free ultrasounds and mammograms in your area, click here.