As you no doubt know by now, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. If the store shelves full of products suddenly packaged in pink didn’t clue you in, then the endless headlines about breast cancer detection, the marathons and walks to raise funds for breast cancer research, and the little pink ribbon buttons worn by people who have had, or who’ve known someone with breast cancer, surely reminded you about the effort to stop this killer of both men and women alike.
Now it’s my turn to tell you my story.
Back in August, I woke up with an itchy right breast. At first, I thought a mosquito must’ve found a particularly tender spot. Lord knows, I’m a mosquito magnet. If there’s one in our house, it’ll fly right past the Big-Eyed Boy, past the Venomous Hubby and any guests we might have, and head for me, even if I’ve bathed myself in mosquito spray (my summer perfume, as we call it). So this itching? I figured it was nothing to worry about. The next day, I woke up to find the side of my breast was deep red. Had I scratched that mosquito bite like crazy in my sleep? I slapped some hydrocortisone on it and put it out of mind as best I could.
As it happened, the following day was my regularly-scheduled breast self-exam. I do mine in the shower. It’s easier, and it gives me something to do while my hair conditioner sinks does its thing. In other words, I’m usually thinking about other stuff while I do it, but this time was different. This time, I found a lump. In my right breast. The one that was now also slightly swollen, still itchy, and still incredibly red.
There’s really nothing that can prepare a woman for finding something like that. Oh, we’re all used to our breasts doing strange things around a certain time of the month: they get larger and tender. If you really want to scare the hell out of yourself you’ll do your self-exam at that point. All the hormone-filled ducts and lobules in there feel like a science project when you’re having your period. This lump felt nothing like that. But since it was nowhere near the red, itchy space, I decided to wait and see if it changed much.
Two weeks later, when it was large enough that even my husband noticed it, I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I made an appointment with my doctor for my annual womanly checkup for the following week and, again, put it out of my mind. Meanwhile, the itching never subsided, and the redness never quite went away. Darned those mosquitoes!
At the doctor’s office, I waited until she’d done a cursory breast exam before mentioning the lump that I’d found. After all, as well-endowed woman (though not so large-chested that I need to weigh the things on a scale of their own), I’m used to my breasts doing weird things. She hadn’t felt a lump, so maybe I’d just imagined it? I told her what I’d found, and she went back to probe further. Sure enough, she found the thing, too, right there at the base of my breast, buried quite deep, and almost like it was part of my rib. Except it was round, and it moved.
“Probably nothing to worry about,” she said. “Maybe a cyst. But just to be sure, let’s send you for a mammogram and an ultrasound.” So, off I went for my first-ever mammogram (yes, I should’ve had one a few years back but I’ve been lazy). The radiologist said it was perfectly clear — he didn’t even see the lump that we’d all felt — and cancelled the ultrasound. Back at my general physician’s office, she just about blew her lid. After all, a mammogram that doesn’t show you a clearly palpable lump isn’t an accurate mammogram, is it?
The following week — a month after I’d first felt the lump, for those who are counting — my doctor sent me to a different place for an ultrasound. There, they found the lump and, for good measure, they took screens of the red, swollen, itchy part, too. (By then even I realized that mosquito bites don’t last that long.) But, being a professional, neither the radiation tech nor the radiologist told me anything about it.
The following day my GP’s office called to tell me they were referring me to a surgeon. No, no reason to worry, they said. Breast cancer isn’t itchy, cancerous tumors aren’t smooth and round like mine, and, besides, nothing looked malignant on the mammogram or ultrasound. But it’s best to be safe than sorry, so off I went to the surgeon’s office the next day.
Only by that point, my right breast was incredibly painful. We’re talking shooting pains that felt like someone was stabbing me with an ice pick. And when those weren’t happening, it just ached. Then again, a lot more people had fiddled with my breast in the past day than in the past, oh, 15 years that I’ve been with my husband. So I did my best not to punch the surgeon as he, too, palpitated it, found the lump, declared that it’s probably not cancerous because it’s smooth and round and painful (apparently, breast cancer neither itches nor hurts). But, since the thing was right on my bra line and it hurt, we should probably take it out.
Last Monday, I went in for surgery. Honestly, I don’t remember much of it except that the anti-anxiety stuff they gave me before wheeling me into the operating room was good. So was whatever they gave me in there, because even though it was just supposed to sedate me, I don’t recall a damn thing. In fact, my next memory is of a flock of nurses descending on my bed as I came out of anesthesia, apparently screaming for my husband to come help me. Wisely, they bustled him to my side.
One hour later, I was home on the sofa in my pajamas with an ice pack clutched tenderly against the four-inch incision on my chest. And that’s how I’ve pretty much spent the past week: clutching either an ice pack or a heating pad to my chest, in my pajamas or something equally loose-fitting, doped up on pain meds at first but now just popping ibuprofen as needed. Since I hadn’t remembered any of the things they’d told me in post-op, I didn’t know at first that I’d need a sports bra two sizes larger than I usually wear (which, believe me, is NOT easy to find!) so I’d worn my regular bra. Big mistake. That caused a hematoma, which in turn led to more pain, which in turn led to slower healing. So slow that I’m frankly at the point where I don’t care what they pulled out of me. I’m just tired of this taking up space in my brain.
So, what did they find? I still have no idea. Although my one-week follow-up with the surgeon had been scheduled this past Monday, he’d been called in to a surgery that ran much longer than expected so they called to reschedule. The next date that worked with his schedule, my husband’s and mine was this Friday.
Yes, I’d like to have had the results earlier, but as everyone’s pointed out: if it was cancer they’d probably have dragged me down there ASAP. Besides, as I’ve been told by my doctor, the initial radiologist, the surgeon, and the pre-op nurse, breast cancer isn’t painful or itchy, and cancerous lumps aren’t smooth and round, so we’re all certain there’s nothing to worry about.
That makes me lucky, I know, and so many women who go through this same experience aren’t. Having been through this, I’ll never be able to look at the color pink without thinking of those women who’ve lost their lives to breast cancer, and the women who’ve yet to be diagnosed. I’ll think of them not just this month, when it’s Breast Cancer Awareness, and not even just this year that I’ve gone through my own scare. When you’ve gone through something like this — even when you’ve been lucky — you can’t put it out of your mind.
I hope you don’t have to wait until you, or someone you know, goes through this kind of scare before you start wondering why there isn’t more being done to stop this killer. Why insurance companies and even our government are trying to discourage regular mammograms. Why, when we know certain chemicals in our food supply feed cancers like this, we aren’t doing more to eliminate those lethal concoctions. Why, even with all the headlines about how 1 in every 8 women will be diagnosed with this, so many women skip their monthly self-exams and annual mammograms. Because, trust me, not knowing doesn’t spare you from a damn thing.