Eight years ago I wrote the As You Read This series which chronicled my experience of first discovering a lump in my right breast to my first attempt to have it removed in October 2010. When that first attempt failed, I followed up with a second biopsy a year later and found out that the lump was a benign fibroadenoma. I was 23 at the time and it was the most stressful thing I’d ever experienced.
Writing has always been my go-to when obstacles in my life feel too hard to keep in my head. Eight years ago I took to my blog to write about what felt like an impossible experience, not only to help myself but to possibly help others who might be struggling with the same scary thing and felt too afraid to talk about it. I was 23 years old. I never anticipated that I’d be scheduling mammograms and ultrasounds in between homework and college classes.
Now, eight years later, at 31 years old, I’m revisiting the As You Read This series because just two days ago, during a routine breast exam, my doctor felt another lump in my breast and though my first instinct was to cry (and believe me, I cried), my other first instinct was to write, again not just for me, but maybe for you, too.
I’ve learned a lot in the eight years since my first biopsy. I’ve had multiple follow-up ultrasounds to track the growth of the fibroadenoma and even had a metal clip attached to it so radiologists can easily spot it on imaging. For the most part, it’s stayed the same size, and over the years the ultrasounds have revealed other benign growths in my breast. I’ve learned that most breast lumps are benign and can be caused by something as innocent as hormonal changes during your monthly cycle.
Still, knowing what I do now doesn’t make the discovery of a new lump any easier. Five years after my biopsy, my doctor in DC told me that I could stop scheduling follow-up ultrasounds. Since the lump hadn’t changed in years and the other findings were likely benign fibroadenomas and cysts, she didn’t see a reason to continue my twice yearly appointments. I continued to have regular breast exams at my physical each year and my doctors have never felt anything unusual or anything that they didn’t already know was there–until now.
At my physical on Monday, after talking for a bit about my history with breast lumps and nonchalantly mentioning that I hadn’t had a follow-up ultrasound in about four years, my doctor asked if I wanted her to do a breast exam. I agreed and as my doctor felt around, I focused my attention on the pictures affixed to the ceiling and thought about how simultaneously nice and weird it was that they were there. I took deep breaths and fully anticipated the first words that came out of my doctor’s mouth:
“I don’t feel anything weird,” she said. What came next is what surprised me. “You do have one small thing here,” she said, moving my finger to a spot on my breast where I’d never felt anything before. I could tell that she thought that I already knew about it. She probably thought that it was one of my old lumps.
“I’ve never felt that before,” I said quietly, trying not to sound too panicked.
“Oh,” she answered. “Well, let’s schedule something then since you haven’t had a follow up in a while.”
If you struggle with anxiety, you likely know about the hard lump that develops in the back of your throat and the overwhelming sense of dread that causes your chest to tighten and makes it hard to breathe when faced with a stressful situation. An intense feeling of deja vu came over me. It didn’t matter that it was a different doctor’s office, a different city, a different time: I’d been here before. And though it’s eight years later and I’m eight years older, the same thought raced through my mind: I’m too young to be dealing with this.
If you struggle with anxiety, you know that sometimes when you’re in the thick of it, there’s no talking yourself down. Sometimes rational thoughts like, “you’ve been through this before” and “your doctor doesn’t seem worried” and “it’s most likely benign” are drowned out by fears like, “what if this one isn’t benign?” and “you might have cancer.”
Thankfully I had a therapy appointment right after my doctor’s appointment and we talked a lot about stress management. We talked about putting stressors into two piles: ones that I have control over and ones that I don’t and how to deal with each pile separately. That helped for a little while. Later, when I caught myself googling a little too much or instinctively reaching to feel the lump, I reminded myself that worrying will never change the outcome, that I’m doing everything in my control to help the situation.
Next Tuesday afternoon, I have an appointment for a 2D bilateral diagnostic mammogram and a right breast ultrasound. I use the full medical name here to express how surreal it feels but also how familiar. In 2010 I could have written a book of all the medical codes and procedures associated with my multiple appointments and biopsies. In case you’re wondering, mammograms aren’t usually fully covered under insurance until a woman turns 40. This means that when you’re 31 years old or 23 years old even if your doctor specifically orders a test, insurance assumes that you don’t need it and makes you pay mostly out of pocket. I mention this only to express how truly unacceptable our current healthcare situation is and since my mammogram is scheduled on Election Day, I encourage you to go out and vote for candidates that will work to change this horrible system.
On Tuesday I will enter a waiting room that I suspect will look the same as all the other waiting rooms I’ve been in before. Although I haven’t had an ultrasound in four years or a mammogram in eight, I can close my eyes and imagine exactly what it will feel like, not just the physical sensation of the tests but the immense anxiety I’ll experience while waiting for a radiologist tell me the results.
It’s true that right now I have no control over the situation, that all I can do is wait. How I handle the worry and stress is under my control though and I’m trying my hardest to utilize the tools I’ve gathered in therapy to cope. I’m practicing taking deep breaths and spotting the lies my anxious mind is telling me. I’m distracting myself with exercise and time spent with friends. I’m drinking lots of tea and reminding myself that this situation would be stressful for any woman, but my mental illness is making it feel extra hard. I’m reminding myself that it’s OK to be scared and to take it one step at a time.
And I’m writing because that’s what I do and if you’re reading this and are experiencing anything remotely similar to what I’m going through–whether it’s the discovery of a lump in your breast or just overwhelming anxiety over something that’s going on in your life–I hope this post has helped you feel less alone.
As always, thanks for reading.
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