For most, it happens in the shower.
It could happen when you’re getting changed.
Maybe you were skinny dipping? It could chance on you in moment of fun.
I imagine for more people than would like to admit, it happens to someone else. It’s their sudden look of confusion, followed by a closely controlled expression of calm that alerts you to it.
“I think you might have a lump.”
It happened to me in bed, in an almost ridiculous situation, as with most of my life. It was late, and I’d just finished my book; my boyfriend was still sitting up watching whatever-stupid-quiz-show-it-was-that-night on his laptop. I looked down at my chest (maybe it was divine providence, maybe it some inner power of self-preservation, or maybe I’d just, Derren Brown like, seen a poster that day at the doctors and it was in the back of my mind) – and thought to myself, ‘haven’t checked my boobs in like forever. Maybe I should have a quick feel.’ So I did, expecting a quick grope, a strange look from the boyfriend, and then lights out and sleepy time.
But instead, in my left boob, in the bottom right-hand corner, I felt something hard. Something undeniably lump-like. It was hard, about the size of a Sicilian olive (later, doctors would laugh at the description), and I could practically grasp it the whole way round. I quickly checked the right breast again. Nothing there. Then the panic descended.
“I think … I’ve got a lump. I’ve found a lump.”
“A fucking breast lump, what do you think?!”
“Alright, calm down Charley. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“Shut up – feel it! It is, isn’t it? Can you feel it? It is.”
A moment of tense silence, during which the boyfriend has the most un-sexy grope known in the history of breast fondling. He was probably wishing he’d finished the programme before I’d finished my book at this point.
“It might be a gland or something.”
“It’s not a fucking gland.”
“Don’t swear at me.”
“I’ve found a bloody breast lump!”
“There’s no need to swear at me. I’m trying to help.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down.”
Another tense silence. Alright – I’m not being very nice – but in my defence, at this point I think I have breast cancer.
“Look it up.”
“Look it up on the bloody internet!”
Then follows the hours of googling.
Googling, you must understand, is the midnight enemy of sanity. It’s Santan’s lair so any seeking medical advice, made up of fatal cocktail of paranoia, hysteria, and misinformation. You can Google any symptom and I guarantee you’ll be able to find ‘Cancer’ as the answer, but breast lumps are a pretty sure fire way to land immediately at that result.
After at least of hour of my slipping in and out of hysteria, whilst boyf researches the plethora of various breast lumps, we agree that there’s nothing we can do about it now. So he goes to sleep, and I try to go to sleep. Lying on my back in the darkness, it seems like the lump is doubling in size every few minutes, practically pushing its face through my skin and taunting me. It glows like a those pieces of nuclear waste that get stuck in Homer Simpson’s shirt at the beginning of every episode of The Simpsons. I barely sleep a wink.
(NB. The lump did not actually glow, nor did it visibly increase in size before my very eyes).
I’ll skip to the doctors on Monday morning, because for the rest of weekend there was nothing to report other than the occasional dose of mild hysteria, followed by the inevitable and addictive use of Google.
The first doctor I saw was calm. Very calm. A bit too calm for my liking. She said it was probably a cyst or a benign lump (it felt like a cyst to her), but that because it was already big (apparently most people find lumps when they’re the size of a pea … oops. The vegetable metaphors continue) they’d get me to a breast clinic asap to get it checked out.
It was nice to be reassured, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit … cheated? Cheated perhaps isn’t the right word. Undervalued maybe, or perhaps just foolish. Because, the way I see it, as a woman I’ve been pre-conditioned throughout my whole life to find a lump and then to panic. There are posters, adverts, articles, horror stories, novels, TV, films. You only have to see Terms of Endearment to know that if you find a lump, you’ve got breast cancer. And don’t even get me started on those adverts which show grieving relatives looking at themselves in the mirror. Seriously, what help is that. That does not want me make me check my breasts. That makes me want to bury my head in the sand and ignore the fact I have those wobbly bits of flesh which are apparently so ripe for disease at all.
I mean, seriously?! No wonder we’re pre-programmed to PANIC at the slightest feel of anything harder than a cold nipple in that vicinity!
But instead of all this drama, before the doctor had even examined me, she said it was ‘probably nothing’. If anything, the doctor was mildly irritated by my panic. Granted, that’s probably because of my age. It would be incredibly unlucky if I had breast cancer at the age of 22, but I didn’t know that. All I knew is that I’d been told my whole life to BEWARE and PREPARE if you find a lump, but then as soon as I did, I felt like no one wanted to take it seriously. I’d spent a whole weekend waiting for this appointment first thing Monday in this horrible hinterland of unknowingness. Don’t tell me ‘it’s probably nothing’. The necessity for awareness prompted my panic, and the media re-enforced. You can’t bring up a child as a smoker, and expect that child to instinctively know that they shouldn’t smoke. In the same way, if you create an environment that teaches awareness only through the veil of fear, then you cannot expect anything but fear when faced with that outcome.
My trip to the hospital two days later revealed, by ultrasound, a fibroadenoma that was indeed the shape and size of a Sicilian olive. For those who don’t know, an ultrasound is only the same as the kind of a scan a pregnant woman has on her belly. The worst bit is you have to lie with your arms behind your head in a very unattractive position which makes you want to say to the doctor, ‘honestly, my tits look quite nice normally’. Your chest also gets coated in that transparent gel stuff they use. Kind of sticky. Kind of annoying. 100% bearable.
According to the NHS website (the only link I will ever follow from Google from now on), a fibroadenoma is ‘a smooth, well-rounded solid lump that sometimes develops outside the milk ducts.’ Most significantly, it was benign, although admittedly rather large. I was told to keep an eye on it, but to try not to touch it, as touching it would bruise the surrounding tissue and might cause it to grow larger.
A few months later I found myself back at the hospital with a lump that had doubled in size and was now, apparently, sufficient cause for alarm to have an immediate core biopsy. I’ll write another post about that process, because, as far as I’m concerned, I would have liked to have a Google link to follow that wasn’t to a hysterical forum or the simple clinical NHS rhetoric. I’m going in for surgery on Friday to have the lump removed (or, as I came to affectionately term it, my third boob), and I’ve been told the worst consequence will be that I’ll probably have a dent.
Yes, a dent. Sounds very attractive and glamorous, don’t it?
So, what I’m trying to say through this ridiculously rambling piece on my hysteria during the first days of discovery; is try not to panic. Panic, I soon realised, wouldn’t help either way, and was only time and energy wasted. If I could change the way that health campaigns were run, and try to advertise to women that there are options other than cancer, then I would – but I suppose advertising is by default dramatic, and needs to grab attention. There’s no sense in a slogan that says ‘Don’t Panic’. Or ‘Keep Calm’. That surely wouldn’t be popular at all.
For more information, please don’t merely Google. Go check out the amazing people at Coppafeel!