Woa! How’d that get there??
Early last summer, I found a lump in my right breast. I had removed a benign lump when I was younger, so I figured this was the same thing. If not, I was pretty certain it would go away on its own. I had stopped breastfeeding my son a few months before, and maybe my hormones were adjusting.
July came and went. Then August rolled around, and the lump was still there. I was due to see my GYN in September, so I figured he could check it out. When I called to schedule the appointment, they were booked and couldn’t see me until October. I took the first available slot and didn’t bother to mention the lump. After all, I knew it was nothing to worry about.
I’m 35…It’s probably nothing.
My husband thought that I should take this a little more seriously, but I had found convincing statistics indicating that the chances of having breast cancer at age 35 were small.
Now is a good time for me to confess that I love numbers just as much as I love words. I love the logic and clarity of numbers, and if I can analyze a situation with numbers and data, I do. I also love Google because it helps me find the data and information that help me make sense of things.
A couple of Google searches turned up some trustworthy sources such as the National Cancer Institute, indicating that about one in eight women born in the United States, or 12.4%, develop breast cancer at some point in their lives. Also, the chances of getting breast cancer increase with age, and certain factors can elevate your risk of getting breast cancer. The NCI lists them on their site.
But I wanted to know the likelihood of someone like me, who is in their thirties, to get cancer. Well, the NCI also has a handy-dandy Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool for health professionals to use when estimating a woman’s risk of developing invasive breast cancer. I know, I’m not a health professional, but why would they put this out there if they don’t want us using it?
I went ahead and entered my information into the tool. It was like taking one of those personality tests you find in magazines, but instead of “What Kind of Friend Are You?” I was taking “How Likely Are You to be Screwed by Cancer?” The results page listed the tool’s limitations. In particular, women with low estimated risk may still develop cancer. That made sense to me since cancer is not totally predictable. If it were, we’d probably know how to prevent it.
My five-year risk of developing breast cancer was 0.4% compared to 0.2% for an average 35-year old woman. My lifetime risk of developing breast cancer was 10.8% versus 8.1% for an average 35-year old woman.
So, my chances were slightly higher than average, but still pretty low. Besides that, I was in good overall health. I worked out regularly, ate a balanced diet rich in all the anti-cancer super foods, and I had breastfed both of my boys for three years each. Breastfeeding is a protective factor against breast cancer. Put all of this together, and I knew I had nothing to worry about. The lump could wait until October.
Three months later…
When I met with my gynecologist, he didn’t notice the lump. It was in a weird spot near my rib cage. When I lied on my back, it almost disappeared. I pointed it out to him, and he ordered a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, if necessary.
My insurance company referred me to a Breast Care Center where I made an appointment for a mammogram and ultrasound a week later. I had never had a mammogram before, but I had heard horror stories of smooshed breasts. It really wasn’t too bad, except for the part when they told me to hold my breath which, of course, made me want to breathe more than ever. After the mammogram, I relaxed in the dimly lit ultrasound room while they took more pictures of my breasts.
A Breast Care nurse met with me after all the tests were done and told me they would have to do a biopsy. What?? This was my first moment of shock. Why a biopsy? It’s nothing, right? She explained that they couldn’t tell whether or not the lump was cancerous, but that 80 – 85% of the time it turns out to be benign. Phew! That was still a good number. The odds were still in my favor, so I didn’t panic.
Two weeks later, I went for an ultrasound-guided core needle biopsy. I had to look that up beforehand because I had never heard of it. Basically, a doctor locates the lump with the help of an ultrasound machine and uses a long, hollow needle to extract pieces of breast tissue. They use local anesthesia to numb the area, so you are awake during the procedure. (You can read more about breast biopsies here.)
I am a chicken sh*t when it comes to any type of invasive medical procedure, and this, my friends, sounded like something invasive. It involved anesthesia and a prick to insert the needle. Enough said. I would have to practice my hypnobirthing breathing to avoid passing out during the biopsy.
Back to biopsy day. The doctor who performed the procedure looked like he was 22 years old. Had he even finished med school? He stepped out of the room, and I asked the ultrasound technician how many times he had performed the procedure. She assured me he was experienced and not 22 but in his 30s. I’m in my 30s, I thought to myself, and I am definitely too young to be performing breast biopsies. This is what I get for going through the HMO instead of the PPO!
When the doctor returned, he and the technician bickered because she had prepared the wrong needle for the biopsy. He had wanted to use a larger needle but was stuck with the one she had prepared because they are too expensive to just throw them away, unused. The thought of using the wrong needle worried me more than the possibility of having cancer.
The doctor anesthetized and sterilized the area, then began extracting pieces of my tumor with the inappropriate needle. He took five samples. I heard a loud “click” each time. During the procedure, a few droplets of blood scattered across my chest and face. Ewww….
I made it through the biopsy without passing out. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. I took some ibuprofen for the pain, and the next day I was back to my regular routine. Now, I just had to sit back and wait for my results, which I was still certain would be negative for cancer.
And the verdict is….
The results came back positive for invasive ductal carcinoma. There was no doubt about it. I had breast cancer.
The Moral of the Story
The lesson I learned here is that while incidence rates provide good reason for young women not to panic at the thought of breast cancer, there is always somebody who has to occupy that tiny percentage of women who do get cancer at a young age.
That somebody could be anybody. You, your friend, your neighbor. So if you find a lump or other abnormality, don’t freak out. It’s probably nothing, but get it checked out promptly. Women should not be paranoid about breast cancer, but they should be diligent about examining their own breasts and following up with their doctors if they notice any changes.
Now, some people will argue that we perform too many unnecessary mammograms and biopsies on young women because most of those lumps turn out to be benign. They are right. The discomfort of a mammogram or biopsy could have been avoided in those cases, and the false alarms do outnumber the instances when they find cancer. But what if you are the other statistic? What if you are the one in eight who will develop breast cancer in your lifetime?
Whether or not you err on the side of caution is a personal decision. I relied so heavily on the statistics, that I delayed diagnosing my cancer. At one point I even considered skipping the “unnecessary” biopsy. Today, I think differently. I’d rather risk the unnecessary biopsy instead of letting a cancer advance.