I was in the shower on a recent Friday morning, when the thought occurred to me that I hadn’t done a breast self-exam recently. I know you’re supposed to do it once a month, but it’s just not usually top of mind. My mammogram last October was clear and everything was fine when I saw my OB/GYN in January.
But it came to mind on that Friday morning, so I started the exam and, within moments, felt something different than what it normally feels like. I didn’t need to consider it at all – I knew right away this was new and I needed to get it checked out.
The first thing I did when I got to work that morning was go online to make a doctor’s appointment. After considering the choices of “normal” or “urgent” for my appointment I chose the latter, and I’m pleased to say I was scheduled to see a doctor just over an hour later. It’s a blessing to have good health care coverage.
As usual, the first thing the nurse did was take my vital signs, including weight, temperature, and blood pressure. “Your blood pressure is a little high,” she said.
“It was fine before I found the lump in my breast,” I answered. A passing nurse laughed.
The doctor was able to confirm the lump right away. He told the nurse it was about 3 centimeters. “So you feel it too,” I said, “It’s not just my imagination.” I don’t know why I said that. I knew I had a lump. I guess, on some level, I must have been hoping I was wrong, sort of like you hope you might have misheard when someone gives you unexpected bad news, even though you know what you heard.
The doctor put his hand on my knee and told me not to try not to worry. I know he was trying to make me feel better, but this made me worse. It felt like the kind of thing doctors only say when they think the patient has something to worry about. Nevertheless, he told me it felt to him like it might just be a cyst, but that they’d have to run some tests to be sure.
Lucky for me, the doctor told me, Kaiser in this area has a one-day women’s health clinic, where you see a doctor and they do a mammogram and/or ultrasound the same day, and then, if needed, a biopsy that same day as well. Apparently, in most places it takes two or three visits to get all of that done. Sounds like a blast, doesn’t it?
They’re open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I got an appointment for the following Tuesday morning. Of course, I immediately went to tell all this to my coworker, who had breast cancer and a double mastectomy late last year. She told me her lump was only 1.1 centimeters, so mine was almost three times as big. That didn’t sound good.
Still, I spent the weekend telling myself it was probably just a cyst. I was doing such a good job of it that I was sleeping well, which is one of the first indicators I have regarding whether or not I’m obsessing about something.
I was doing great until Monday night, when my husband said, “You know, I haven’t told anyone at work about what’s going on.”
“Ok,” I replied.
“I mean,” he clarified, “I haven’t told them about me having to take a bunch of time off of work or why.”
“Why do you need to take time off of work?” I inquired.
“To take care of you,” he said.
“It’s a cyst!” I scowled at him, “I thought I was the one who was supposed to be the hypochondriac!”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t be, too,” he asserted.
On Tuesday, another doctor, who specializes in these things, examined the lump. It was the nurse for this doctor who gave me the bad news: “Your mother had breast cancer when she was 75, and had a mastectomy,” she said. I agreed.
“Then she died later that year of colon cancer,” she continued.
That was quite a surprise to me. Later, it turned out to be quite a surprise to my mother, also, who is now 85 and living happily in Ashland, Oregon. And who, as far as I know, has never had colon cancer. Lucky for me, the nurse took my word for it, and corrected my records.
At any rate, this doctor agreed it was probably a cyst, but he wasn’t sure, so he put a little sticker on my breast where the lump was and ordered a mammogram and an ultrasound. Downstairs I went to radiology.
Now, having a mammogram on a good day isn’t a lot of fun. But let me tell you, when you have a mammogram where they specifically aim at and squeeze the part that has a lump and which is already tender to the touch, it hurts like the dickens. When she told me to hold my breath, I’d already been holding it from the pain and all I could think was, “Just take the (expletive deleted) picture and let me out of this torture device!”
She took three pictures from different angles, but, I learned, nothing unusual showed up on the mammogram. Nothing at all.
So I got to go to the ultrasound. Tip for the future: see if you can get the ultrasound first and skip the mammogram. The ultrasound doesn’t hurt. Well, not as much, anyway, since any pressure on it hurt a little bit.
At any rate, there on the screen was a picture of a nice fleshy-looking area, with what looked like an empty black oval in the middle. “Now, that has to be a cyst,” I thought, “It looks empty, which must mean it’s just full of fluid. Which means it’s not cancer.” Which is all I really cared about.
Turns out I was right. The doctor took one look at the pictures and agreed. Treatment plan: Do nothing. “Modah ani,” as I say every morning to God and as I said to my rabbi about all this afterward, “I am grateful.”