Lumpy but normal: My (irrational?) breast cancer scare
Forward: I am sharing this story here because when I was looking for personal accounts from women who’ve found breast lumps that turned out not to be cancer, there was very little out there. Instead, all of the accounts I found were ones where it was determined to be cancer. But as 80-90% of breast lumps turn out to be non-cancerous (and often non-worrying) I thought that maybe I could ease someone’s fears whilst they waited for their own tests. It’s a bit embarrassing to talk about my anatomy so publicly like this, but if my story can help someone else, it’s worth it.
Disclaimer: This is my own personal account and is not meant to be used as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment information. Even if your own symptoms are similar to mine, please seek medical guidance as you may not be experiencing the same thing I did—even if it sounds the same.
It started nearly six weeks ago. It was a Wednesday morning; early. I was experiencing high stress levels at the time, so it wasn’t surprising that I was awake at 3 o’clock in the morning. And as I was awake, lying in bed unable to sleep, I did a breast exam. (Is it weird that I do them when in bed and unable to sleep?) And that's when I felt the lump—a couple of them. They felt like little peas, tucked just under the skin on my lower left breast.
My mind went from a state of general stress to one of panic and fear. I was too young to have breast cancer. I had too many plans for my future. I already had two major medical conditions, I couldn’t have another. I had experienced more than my share of heartaches and disappointments in my life, it wasn’t fair to have more!
I was due to fly home to Scotland in six days’ time so I tried to remain calm, though I couldn’t help but wonder if whatever this was could derail my PhD dreams. I couldn’t help but to think that—if I was sick—I might not return to the Homeland this side of alive. I couldn’t help but to think that these goodbyes might be my last goodbyes. (All of which helped to create the perfect storm for a panic attack when I went to leave!)
Shortly after returning to Scotland and moving into my new home, I registered with my new doctor and made a basic appointment where they drew blood and took a urine sample before making an appointment to see the doctor for a breast exam and all of that lovely stuff.
Then I tried to put it out of my mind once again. And then things got worse. Fear and worry took over and I became hypersensitive to every little thing happening with my body. I was convinced that something was killing me; I just didn't know what it was. Well, maybe not convinced, but I was very worried. Life was starting to look favourably on me again with my return to Scotland and the start of my PhD so I was certain that doom was waiting for me just around the corner. It just seems that's my fate these days: Life is going well, so it's time for something bad to happen.
Whilst I waited to see my doctor, I regularly checked the lumps to see if there were more—or if they were getting larger. Then, one day, I noticed a new one on my right breast; on the top portion nearest my arm. It seemed to appear overnight and was a bit sore and tender, which made me worry even more.
At the same time, I was coming down with a cold and I tried to tell myself that maybe it was just swollen lymph nodes or something. In my breast. Yeah, it could happen. Right? And then that lump went away. The lump, the pain, everything. It was gone just as my cold began to subside. (Relief!)
When the day came for me to see the doctor, I was nervous. I tried to prepare myself for bad news—or at least inconclusive news. We started off by talking about the lab results, which were all normal (with the exception of my always-low platelet count) and didn’t show anything of concern, which was a good sign. Then she did a breast exam and noted that she, too, only felt the initial two lumps and they were perfectly normal.
As was the one coming and going in conjunction with a cold.
But if they were normal, why have I only noticed them recently? Well, that’s because our bodies (and hormones) change over time. (Apparently.)
But does that mean I have the all-clear and I never have to worry again? Well, no. I will still have to check the couple of lumps to make sure that they don’t start growing. And I will still have to check for new lumps or other changes in my breasts. And I suppose I will probably find myself checking more often now. At least in the beginning. And—hopefully—if I find any more of those little pea-sized lumps, I won’t be as stressed and frightened as I was the first time. But I’ll still be sure to have them checked out—just to be sure.
I know it seems like a non-story because I’m just saying I don’t have breast cancer—and that’s something that is true for most of the population. But the point is that I don’t have breast cancer, and the odds are that 80-90% of women who find lumps don’t, either. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have them checked out, I just know that I wish I had found someone’s personal account during the weeks I waited to be told I was normal; I just know that some reassurance from someone who’d “been there, done that” might have helped ease some of my stress.
A couple of things to note:
The delay in seeing a doctor wasn’t a failure of the medical system; it was a combination of my being on holiday when it was first noticed and of my moving home and doctor practices on my return to Scotland. I’m sure that if I had been home and settled when I first noticed a lump, I’d have seen a doctor within a week.
Seriously—if you’ve found a lump and are reading this story, please go make an appointment with your doctor. I know I said it at the top, but just because my story might sound familiar to you, you can never be too safe when it comes to something so serious.
Figures vary, but most (reputable) websites state that 80-90% of breast lumps are non-cancerous. The NHS has a good page talking about other potential causes for lumps here. But, again, be sure to talk to your doctor about your own personal situation!
[Image note: That's me pretending to be frightened that a bear is chasing me. I think that would have been a less-frightening situation than worrying about breast cancer!]