The C-word has always fluttered around on the peripheries on my life for as long as I can remember. Cancer. I have friends who’ve battled it, family members, and most closely, my mom had breast cancer when I was in high school.
It’s one of life’s terrifying mysteries that’s easy to ignore the presence of, but you can always feel the spectre of it making the hair rise on the back of your neck. Since I’ve seen cancer first hand, I’ve always been especially cognisant of staying on top of all my ladies’ health checks. Pap smears, self breast checks, the full works.
I’m going to go out on a tangent here for a moment and speak directly to all the ladies: boobs are inherently lumpy, right? So when you follow the fliers showing you how to do breast checks in the shower, 90% of the time, if you’re like me you think “Well, that’s a bit lumpy but that’s supposed to be there. I think.” I think there should be a class in school where everyone gets to feel up a model of a breast to check for abnormal lumps just to get some practice in. It will be embarrassing and hilarious, but it would probably save lives, right?
Anyways, let’s get back on track. Breasts are lumpy and bumpy and only you really know what your particular bumps are kind-of like. And one day a few weeks ago, I felt a lump. I was like, “well that’s weird, but I’m also a chronic worrier so I’m probably imagining it.” So I left it alone for a bit. And then the next time I checked it was still there, which is when the “huh” alarm started to gently tingle. I did what most sane women do – try to find someone else who feels comfortable squashing their boob around to see if they feel it too. In my case, I chose Sam (lucky Sam). He felt it too, so I immediately booked an appointment with my GP.
But as soon as I had set my mind to seeing the doctor, I started second guessing myself. It probably is nothing. The NHS is already overburdened. I don’t want to waste their time. I don’t want to be the girl who cried breast lump. (The worry was that if I ever found another again, that the doctor would take me less seriously if I had come in claiming to have found one before.) I defaulted to my 7 year old self and called my mom who re-assured me that it was probably all fine but that it was not wasting anyone’s time to go to the doctor.
Once there, my GP had a good feel around and she too could feel something. In a way I felt victorious. My first thought was, “Yes! I’m not losing my mind – there actually was something there” and my next thought was “Oh f*$#”. I was referred to the breast screening clinic to have screenings and all that jazz.
So What Happened Next?
In most cases, if your GP refers you, you’ll go to a special unit in your local hospital. In my case, it was to the York Teaching Hospital where the staff was 100% lovely. They completely understand that when you get to the point of being referred to them, you are usually pretty stressed about it and they go to great lengths to calm you down and talk you through everything.
We started with a physical exam where the doctor at the clinic had a feel around just to confirm what the GP and myself felt. They then brought in the breast surgeon in the unit to double check. As everyone could still feel something in my case, they decided to proceed with some screenings. Because of my age, they ruled out doing the mammogram because the lump probably wouldn’t be picked up on it. (The doctor explained that in most women under 40 the tissue is too dense and the reading would just come out as white with the lumps obscured or hidden.) So I had a ultrasound. It was just like in the movies when you see a pregnant woman get her baby scan, but it was my boob and I was reclining with one arm overhead like Rose posing for her portrait.
At that point in time, they could see the lump on the scan and because the edges were quite smooth and it was fairly mobile, they were confident to diagnose it as a fibroadenoma. Fibroadenomas are benign lumps that occur especially in your early 20s. So if you’re under 25 and that’s what they discover at that point in time, you’re off the hook mostly and you can go home knowing you have a lumpy but cancer-free boob.
In my case, I’m banging on the front door of 30, the team decided that they wanted to biopsy it, just as a precaution. So nearly all women over 25 in the UK that get a diagnosis of fibroadenoma will be biopsied. The doctor sat me down after my scan to explain the results and the fact that it’s definitely benign, but that they wanted to book me in for a biopsy in a few weeks. When I questioned if her certainty was just a tactic to ensure that I didn’t freak out over the next few weeks, she assured me that if they were actually worried about the lump they would have biopsied it then and there.
I made the terrible mistake of googling “does a breast biopsy hurt?” because I am a massive baby and I hate needles. In came dozens of horror stories from women who had their biopsy and the anestethitic didn’t work and they were in agony. Or it worked just fine but the next few days were awful.
From my point of view (as someone who has never had surgery before and thinks that they have a low pain threshold), it was an absolute walk in the park. There are several types of biopsies that can be done from fine needle aspiration (where they are able to reach the lump with a super tiny needle to take the sample) to a core needle biopsy, which is what I had done. During a core needle biopsy, you’re injected with a local anesthetic and then the doctor makes a small cut so that they can insert a hollow needle which traps bits of cells inside.
The most painful bit was the anestethic. After that I felt pressure but nothing else. Be warned though that the hollow needle clicks loudly – like a piercing gun – when they take the samples. Less than 20 minutes on the table and I’m being bandaged up and sent on my merry way. In fact, I felt so fine that I literally leapt off the table, then immediately had to sit down due to dizziness. My nurse then explained that the injection they give you also has adrenaline in it to slow down the blood flow to the area so you can feel the affects of that for a bit. As an FYI – the cut area bleeds a lot once the adrenaline wears off and gets quite bruised. You’re also advised to take it easy for a few days and lift nothing heavier than a kettle. In the days afterwards, I felt pretty spiffy. I had a fair bit of bleeding from the area and a bruise that still hasn’t faded but it’s a tiny, minuscule price to pay.
I was incredibly lucky and my result was a benign tumour. (Insert one million hoorays!) I had to wait about 2 1/2 weeks after my biopsy for the result but that time was slightly extended by having the biopsy done on a Friday before the Bank Holiday.
(And here’s a big thank you to the countless doctors and nurses, I saw. But especially to Lisa at the York Teaching Hospital who has been with me nearly every step of the way and helped calm me down when she knew that I hated needles. )
So here’s the moral of the story ladies: feel those boobs. Do it frequently. And never be afraid of being the girl who cried breast lump.
****Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional, and everyone’s experience will be different according to their needs, but I thought it was important to write about the process and clarify it a bit for people who might be scared of going to the doctor, like I was! ****