Dedicated to Amy Misiuk. I still think about and miss you every day.
Avoiding the Necessary
I wrote this article a little less than a year ago. At that time, I was a couple of months away from being due for my annual mammogram. I missed it. I missed it over and over and over again even though I am living with breast lumps.
At first my excuses were valid. My insurance, much to my surprise, hadn’t covered my last mammogram and the medical bills were rolling in. It was the perfect opportunity to procrastinate.
After several months, I got on much better insurance, and I was only a couple of months past due for my annual mammogram. Still, I didn’t go, opting for reluctant self-examinations each month instead of facing an anxiety inducing appointment.
And things had been going so well, until now.
Discovering a New Lump
I was laying in bed, staring out through my bedroom skylights and examining my breast when I came across a new mass. I circled it over and over with my fingers, trailing to the first one I discovered and back over and over when I realized I couldn’t catch my breath and tears were rolling down the sides of my face.
How could I be so irresponsible? How could I be so stupid?
Yes, my initial reaction was to punish myself for putting off my exam. Instead of holding compassion for my own experience, I began the blame game and let my emotions spiral out of focus.
While my own reaction comes as little surprise to me, I’m often shocked at the reaction I receive from people when I share my experience with breast lumps.
Women are fairly compassionate, and often share their own stories and fears. A number of men have declared, “Oh, I know plenty of women who have lumps and they are just fine.”
Men, Listen up! This is not helpful. This is not cool.
I too know many women who have and have had lumps. Several of them are dead, some no longer have breasts, a few are still fighting cancer, and yes…some are just fine.
But I shouldn’t have to defend my fear. I shouldn’t have to defend my anger.
Anger & Fear & All that Comes with It
Yes, I’m currently angry. I’m angry at myself. I’m angry that just when everything was going well in most areas of my life, I have this to deal with. I’m angry that the lump is in my favorite breast. (Yes, I have a favorite.)
And most of all, I’m angry that the process of ruling out breast cancer must now begin. All. Over. Again.
I thought this time–because I knew there would be a this time–I would be calmer and braver…and maybe more on top of things. But, I’m not. I’ve spent a couple of days procrastinating…doing other important things. And everyone has suffered.
Everyone has suffered, because when I’m scared and hurting I can be short and snappy and unkind. My fear looks a whole lot like anger when I’m interacting with those I love most. And so I end up alone and isolated or isolating myself.
I haven’t told anyone about my new lump yet. I’ve been putting it off and reveling in the pretend. Pretending everything is OK, and that tomorrow is a fine time to call for an appointment.
But today, driving home from an errand all alone, I found myself gulping for air in tears and knew it was time. So my friends, while you read about where this all began, I’m going to set the wheels of finding out what comes next in motion.
Keep your fingers crossed. I know I’ll be crossing mine.
Discovering My First Breast Lump
It’s one of those unforgettable moments for a woman. Letting down from a difficult day, I was finding some much-needed relief from stress in a long, drawn-out, hot shower. My breasts had been aching for days as they often do after ovulation. So as the shampoo began to rinse from my hair, I used it to wash my shoulders, armpits and then, without thought, circled my hands around my throbbing breasts.
That’s when I felt it. My hands froze as the fingertips of my left hand skimmed across something hard and slightly pointy under my left breast’s areola. A rush of panic passed through my body. I knew instantly something was different.
Something was wrong.
I have always wondered how the hell I’d be able to tell the difference between a normal breast lump and a potentially dangerous breast lump in my breast. I can’t tell you how many times during a breast self-examination I’ve declared with exasperation, “There’s all sorts of lumps in there!”
There are all sorts of lumps in breasts, but this one instantly took me back in time to the day when my high school PE teacher introduced me to the Blue Boob.
The Blue Boob & Breast Cancer Awareness
The Blue Boob was this rubbery, navy blue mass, that was loosely shaped like a tit. It had various orbs inside of it, a couple of which were supposed to be representative of potentially cancerous breast lumps. Sitting on the gym bleachers along with the other girls from my class, we were instructed to close our eyes and feel around the Blue Boob until we located the pea-sized breast lumps. Dutifully, we did as we were told, rolling our eyes and giggling the whole time. I struggled to locate the correct breast lumps at first, but after several tries I found success.
And there I was again, standing in my shower, my fingers tracing a pea-sized lump. I knew exactly what it was.
Women spend a good amount of time thinking about our breasts. We think about their size and shape and what people think about them. Are they too big? Are they too small? We also spend a lot of time thinking about if and when they might kill us.
I had walked myself through this exact scenario in my head billions of times before. Each time I calmly told myself not to worry, after all, at my age my own mother had found benign breast lumps and remained cancer-free until she was much, much older. Then I scheduled my mammogram, and all always ended well.
What Finding My Breast Lump Was Really Like
But this was different. I wasn’t imagining the lump. My breast lump was real, and my mom had eventually gotten breast cancer. At the time, I had one child in the hospital and my savings had been depleted covering her expenses. As a freelance writer, my benefits were bare minimum. Would they even cover a mammogram? What if they did, and the mammogram revealed that I had cancer? Would we be able to afford treatment?
There, in the shower, all these thoughts filled my mind until they felt like they were spilling out, swarming around me and occupying the whole bathroom. I stepped out of the tub, sat on the toilet wrapped in a towel and considered whether to tell my family, and whether or not to see a doctor.
I know, it seems insane. But this is my true experience, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that my experiences are rarely unique to me. How many other women out there have found themselves in the same predicament?
I did tell my family, and I saw a doctor who sent me in for a mammogram. With my children’s father taking point on hospital duty, and friends both far away and busy with life, I faced the experience alone.
I’m not going to lie. I put on a brave face, but the minute my breast was out of my shirt I began to dry heave. If the women doing the exam weren’t so fucking incredibly kind, I would have felt humiliated…but I think it’s likely I wasn’t the first woman to have an adverse reaction to her breast on the plate.
I freely cried in my changing room while I waited for the results.
I resolved to remove both breasts if I found cancer. I decided firmly against a rebuild. There wouldn’t be enough money, and it would be too difficult on my family. Besides the women behind the flat movement were beautiful in my opinion.
Then I tried to imagine how my children’s father would possibly manage. With both of us barely balancing work, a child in the hospital and two children in need of emotional support and daily care, how could he possibly take on my additional duties and caring for me through cancer?
The tears kept coming.
When the results finally came in, the news was good. All indications from my mammogram suggested my breast lumps were benign. Lumps? As it turned out, there were multiple lumps. I was sent immediately in to get an ultrasound of my breast, which I was told would completely rule out cancer.
The breast ultrasound was negative for breast cancer. I cried again. I cried for relief and for joy and for my poor family who wouldn’t have to suffer an additional blow.
And life went on.
Life After Breast Lumps
But life is never really the same after you discover a breast lump is it? A lump, benign or not, feels like a tiny little time bomb waiting to go off and tear your whole life apart.
For a long time after my mammogram and breast ultrasound, I indulged in forgetfulness. I pretended like nothing had ever happened. I avoided my breasts in the shower. I basked in the, “I’m perfectly fine.” But soon the bills hit, and the fight with my insurance ensued, and my breast…there it was attached to my body with it’s fucking breast lump needing to be checked again and again.
I reluctantly check my breasts each month. I force myself to not just take a quick pass over the lump. I explore it for changes and size. I cry. Often. I’m scared.
I really am.
In a month, I’ll be due for my next exam. I already find myself making excuses not to go. The idea of scheduling the appointment, walking through the doors and waiting to find out if my breast lump is just a harmless mass or cancerous is overwhelming.
I want to share strategies for coping with the annual mammogram while living with breast lumps, but the truth is, I haven’t quite figured them out for myself. So, here’s what I will do. I’ll share things I’m working on right now, to help ensure that I get to that annual appointment. Then, after I go, I’ll update this article with the results and let you know what worked, and what did not.
How to Cope with Your Annual Mammogram While Living with Breast Lumps
Find a person or support group that will hold you accountable: What better to hold me accountable than a published article? Adds a little pressure to make that appointment. Tell your partner, lover, friends and family about your fears and reluctancy. Ask them to hold you accountable and make sure you make an appointment.
Phone a friend: Do you have a friend who will listen to your fears without trying to fix them? Phone that person. Let it all out. Find relief in the release.
Stay away from stories: DO NOT read breast cancer stories. Do not do this to yourself. It will not help
Don’t do it alone: Attending my mammogram with out the physical presence of a support person was fucking awful. I will find someone to go with me this time. There is no reason you should have to do this alone.
Believe in the best: Believe the best will happen for you. Live in that truth. Even if the outcome isn’t what you want, suffering now only robs you of precious moments. Remember, every day is a gift. No one knows when their time is going to be up so stay in the moment.
Do you have a strategy you’d like to share with me? Please leave it in the comments below.