Two months ago, while living abroad in London, I was at a breast clinic, under the admittedly skilled and very kind professional care of the staff there. But despite their reassurances, I was absolutely petrified. Because I thought I might have breast cancer.
Twelve percent of American women will get breast cancer in their lifetime, and the disease is also still the second leading cause for death in women according to the American Cancer Society. This essay is not about that statistic though; I would not pretend to know what sufferers of breast cancer go through.
Instead it is about the even larger statistic of women that will face a cancer scare in their lifetime – 1.6 million breast biopsies are performed each year in the US, approximately 80% of which will be found to be benign. This means many of us will discover a lump and be left terrified at some point during our lives (and still, we are the lucky ones).
I discovered my first lump at the age of 30. With a history of breast cancer in my family, the disease was not outside the realm of my imagination, nor is it likely outside that of many women’s, but still – it seemed like more of a hypothetical I saw as potentially having to think about in the distant future. I didn’t even check my breasts regularly and certainly didn’t expect to have to head in for testing when just entering into my third decade.
At the time, my doctor suggested I wait one menstrual cycle before having the lump tested to make sure it wasn’t hormonal, during which time I cried myself to sleep every night, certain that there was something horribly wrong with me, In the end, an ultrasound revealed it was only “dense breast tissue.”
Whatever it was, it never went away though and, two years later, it grew larger and excruciatingly painful. By this time, a family member in her 30s had been diagnosed (after demanding that a “benign” painful lump be retested) with breast cancer, and, given that my mother and grandmother had also had breast cancer, I was fully panicked.
To make matters worse, I was stuck in the US for the summer with no medical insurance and so had three full months to stress out about it before I could come back to London to get it checked out. During this time, aided and abetted by Google and webMD, and having just seen my mother go through cancer and the reconstruction process after a mastectomy, as well as having heard how chemotherapy can effect fertility from another friend, I imagined all sorts of worst-case scenarios.
And so I found myself back at a London oncoplastic surgeon’s office this past autumn. Once again, the ultrasound showed the lump was just thick breast tissue, and the radiologist explained that this tissue could sometimes be painful.
I let out a three-month-held sigh of relief before he suddenly said, “What’s this?”
He had dragged the ultrasound wand further down my breast and found a random solid mass. Because of my family history, the doctor explained they would need to be on the conservative side with testing, but that I shouldn’t be worried (too late). Suddenly needles were flying out and I was being prepped for a biopsy.
I left crying. The biopsy was awful and I felt alone. Also, it REALLY hurt, especially when the anesthetic wore off. I also left the clinic with a leaflet that stated that only 20% of biopsied masses end up being malignant. To whoever wrote this leaflet thinking it would be a “comforting” statistic, one out of five is still way too many to qualify as reassuring.
I went back to the clinic for my results a few days later. I was trying to read the nurse and doctor’s faces. Were these the faces of two people about to break the news of cancer to someone? Surely that would cause some anxiety, and they looked fairly relaxed. I was right; in the end, I got the all clear.
I felt very lucky but what was surprising to me about the experience was that, when I talked to my girlfriends about what had happened, a shocking number of them had had similar experiences, even though we are all only in our late twenties or early thirties. Some had had lumps that needed to be removed and tested as early as their teens.
Learning this made me wish I had talked about it earlier.
Maybe I would have felt less freaked out about the whole thing but, to be honest, it wasn’t something I expected a ton of my peers to identify with. There are lots of statistics available about breast cancer incidence and survival rates, but I would be interested in a statistic (which despite my best efforts, I could not locate) about how many of us will go through the fear of discovering and having a lump tested in our lifetime.
In research for this essay, I come across an old Telegraph article in which a male doctor pointed out that, given that breast cancer has a 78% survival rate, it is high time “to end the fear.” I would suggest this doctor doesn’t fully grasp the complexity of the “fear” he refers to. When trying to find the incidence of biopsy rates amongst young women, I came across an online forum for people in their twenties facing breast cancer. One woman says she wants to have children but was not able to freeze her eggs before chemotherapy. Another woman expressed that she is worried about finding a husband now that breasts are so scarred. Incidentally, I had a friend who had a lumpectomy in university only to have a some winner of a guy she was with a few months later exclaim “What’s wrong with your boob?!” She was mortified and didn’t want to leave the house for days.
All of these fears resonated with my own, some of which I, for some reason, felt guilty about when I had them. Were they the “right” fears to be having in such a situation?
I also questioned writing this essay. Did I have any business writing about breast cancer when I ended up having a benign mass? In the end I chose to go ahead because, during the various times I have driven myself sick with worry, I wish I had known that lumps and biopsies are not such a rarity amongst my age group. It might have eased my mind to have known that nearly all of my friends have had negative results. Lastly, it would have made me feel better to have realized sooner that other women had the same fears I did, and that I had close friends that had experienced the same thing. It was just that we never spoke of it. I hope that writing this might open discourse for anyone going through a breast cancer scare so that they don’t feel isolated in dealing with it.