This is a post for my female contemporaries, those of you approaching or just past 40.*
If, like me, you have an incredibly busy life and are continually juggling stuff you just don’t have time to do, you may also be in the situation where the unpleasant personal stuff sinks to the bottom of your priorities list and stays there.
Part of that is busyness, the other part is desirability. Some of the stuff we have to do is just not appealing, no matter how good it might be for you. Going to the gym is one. Getting your lady parts checked is another.
So it was that I reached the grand old age of 43.5 years without ever having a mammogram, despite a family history of breast cancer. I have a diligent mother (and father) who regularly remind me of the things I should be doing given my family history (which also includes sudden heart attack and bowel cancer), but I’m very good at saying “Yes, yes, I will when [I’ve finished this paper/the kids are on holidays/the world stops spinning and I can get off].
I have good intentions but the world never actually does stop spinning, there are other things to do when the kids go on holidays, and there’s always another paper (or five).
Sometimes we’re lucky as I’ve just been but sometimes we’re not. I’m writing this post as a public service (lol, as I do with all my posts) because, in the last 6 weeks, I’ve learnt a couple of things that might be useful or reassuring to other women in my life phase.
Lumps feel like…?
One of the problems with the whole breast awareness thing is that you don’t know what you’re looking for. I gave up self-checking years ago because everything on me feels lumpy and I can’t tell one month to the next what is what.
What no one told me is what a lump that I should worry about feels like. Now I’m sure there are different kinds of lumps but what I accidentally found on the last morning of AARE in December after rolling over in a particularly hard bed had no earthly reason for being where it was.
I knew pretty much straight away that I’d never felt anything like this before and it wasn’t normal for me. That said, I spent half the flight on the way home from Fremantle feeling myself up in the airplane toilet hoping that it was just my imagination.
My husband had already made an emergency appointment with the GP for the following morning, so I headed off, still kind of thinking that I was imagining things, even though every family member had had a go and agreed that they could definitely feel a hard lump. Not hard as in glassy like a marble, but hard as in one of those little bouncy balls liked by kids and cats.
After much prodding the GP recommended that I get myself along to the Breast Clinic at the Wesley. I didn’t realise it at the time – naive as I was – that she was trying to stress urgency without stressing me.
I was already worried enough because a doctor had felt my bouncy ball, so I knew now that this wasn’t my imagination but I was not feeling panicked. That came later.
My GP warned that the Wesley had a bit of a waiting list and told me to read her referral to the receptionist over the phone when trying to make an appointment.
It still didn’t twig that this was no “normal” lump (I had cyst in my head by this point). She even said that if they couldn’t get me an appointment within the next week to call her back and she’d “arrange something”. I just thought she was being nice.
Sure enough, the Wesley is very busy with appointments booked for weeks ahead. The panic started when after hearing what my GP had written the receptionist said “Can you be here in an hour?”
Anyway, I gave a teary yes, toddled off to the Wesley and waited in fear for the dreaded mammogram machine, which I’d heard so many horror stories about.
It’s really not that bad…
You heard it here first ladies – a mammogram is nothing! For years I’d been putting off this particular torture chamber because I’d heard how painful it was but, in my experience, it wasn’t.
In fact, the breast nurses were so kind, professional, humorous and caring, it turned out to be a bit of a feminine love-in. I’ve never felt so respected. Could do with more of that in maternity wards, I can tell you…
So point number 1 for this blog is don’t believe what you’ve heard: once you hit 40, go get the damn mammogram.
I’ll be lining up for my dose of feminine love every year from now on because not only do I apparently have “busy breasts” but what the mammogram found scared the shit out of me.
What you don’t know could kill you
I fronted up to the Wesley knowing that I had a lump in my right breast. The GP confirmed that much.
What I didn’t know and what the mammogram showed was that there were two in the left breast as well, and that two of the three lumps were relatively large.
At that point I called my husband and said that he should probably be around for the next leg: ultrasound.
The ultrasound was more painful than the mammogram because they have to push so hard to get a clear picture. However, I don’t think it is like that for all women. I’ve been told I have fibromyalgia (a kind of princess and the pea syndrome), so I’m probably a lot more sensitive than most.
The ultrasound confirmed that there were three lumps and biopsies were ordered. This, it turns out, is why my GP wanted me to go to the Wesley Breast Clinic. She knew I was going to need a biopsy and that they could do all on the same day: a one-stop shop with a diagnosis at the end.
They did a fine needle biopsy for the third smaller lump and I honestly didn’t feel a thing. No local, nothing. It was amazing! Even better was that the lump imploded as soon as the needle entered, so that was confirmed as a cyst. The specialist had suspected that from the dark colour/ presentation of the lump on the films.
The other two, however, required core biopsies. Again, the most unpleasant part was the pressure from the ultrasound as the local anaesthetics numbed everything else.
I was panicking big time at this stage because I could see the difference between these two lumps and the other. They were cloudy, large and had their own blood supply. The specialist took five core biopsies of each, patched me up and we waited for the verdict.
I love doctors, especially Irish ones…
My breast specialist was from Dublin. Just hearing her talk made me feel safe and secure (I grew up there and Irish accents just feel like home). She explained what they’d found: two large tumours, 4 cm diameter on the right, and 2.5 cm diameter on the left.
Just to put that in perspective, the one on the right is the same size as a ping-pong ball, golf ball, or squash ball. The one on the left is about the same size as one of my cats’ bouncy balls AND NEITHER I OR MY GP KNEW IT WAS THERE.
That blew me away. The fact that I had a hard squash ball in my right breast and had only found it by chance, and that there was another smaller (but by no means small) lump in my left breast that only the mammogram could detect, really taught me a lesson.
Anyway, my breast specialist said we’d have to wait the weekend for pathology results but she didn’t think we were looking at cancer. That was a massive relief but she did say I’d have to have surgery quick smart because she suspected these were phyllodes tumours; very fast growing tumours that can double in size in weeks and even erupt from the skin.
So, yesterday I underwent surgery at the Royal Brisbane Hospital. This too was far less awful than I imagined and, as you can probably tell by the fact I’m blogging the morning after, I’m not feeling bad at all.
My husband is looking after me brilliantly (so far he’s made chorizo pasta, avocado on toast, and brought Bounty Bars home), so I’m going to milk this for all its worth.
If you’ve made it this far I hope that my experience can help counteract whatever horror stories you might have heard. Don’t let them put you off. It really isn’t that bad!
It’s much worse finding out that you might have left it too late, or worse that your hitherto neglected boobs might be trying to kill you.
* Feel free to pass this on to your loved ones boys… especially if they are as myopic about this stuff as me.
PS: I’d like to give a special shout out to my research assistant, Kylie Rayner, who has been a wonderful support and wealth of information on all things breast related. 🙂