As Chris Martin warbles in Coldplay’s The Scientist, let’s go back to the start.
I discovered the lump in my breast in May 2015 as I was getting ready for work one morning. I’d never noticed it before and it felt quite tender and sore so I was wondering if I’d run into something and bruised it.
Of course, any lump in your breast raises an alarm that it might be breast cancer, but with barely any family history of breast cancer (my maternal grandmother had a mastectomy in her late 50s and no follow-up treatment, and later passed away in her early 70s from pancreatic cancer), the fact that it was tender and I had read previously that breast cancer doesn’t hurt, I dismissed it as probably nothing.
I had not been taking very good care of myself as I’d had a big project on at work that had just gone live and I had been working to 8 or 9pm each night and most Sundays in the lead-up to its launch.
I felt rundown and planned to speak to my manager about taking a week off work very soon because I knew I was running on empty and needed to recharge my body.
That night, we were having some after-work drinks to celebrate the launch of the new work project and somehow it came up in conversation about how your life can change in an instant. I remember I was about to say, ‘Yeah, I just found a lump in my breast this morning and thought, this might be something …’ but I knew once the words left my mouth it would make it real and no one would let me ignore it until I saw a doctor. So I said nothing.
A couple of weeks later, I took a week’s leave and the dogs and I went down to Ulladulla on the south coast of New South Wales and stayed in a house beside the beach. Of course, as often happens when you finally take leave after running yourself ragged, I got a cold on the first day as I was driving down there and was sick for the whole holiday.
I still couldn’t shake the cold when I went back to work the next week and the following weekend I noticed that the lump in my right breast was larger than it had been a few weeks ago. It was still sore and tender, but I was sure that meant it couldn’t be breast cancer. I did a bit of Dr Googling over the weekend and made an appointment to see a GP at a medical centre near work on the Monday.
The GP sent me off for a mammogram and ultrasound to check the lump out and I got an appointment for the Wednesday. I went off for the mammogram and I think by this stage I had self-diagnosed myself with some other rare lump, that was not breast cancer. I’d even joined a Facebook support group for this rare disorder, which I can’t remember the name of now. Thank you Dr Google!
I remember being taken out the back of the imaging centre at the hospital and being given a gown to wear that barely covered me. I sat in yet another waiting room, my cleavage busting out of the gown and grabbed a magazine and held it over my cleavage trying to gain some modesty as various people walked past the smaller waiting area. Little did I know than how many people were going to see my breasts over the next 12 months and how much more comfortable I’d become with just getting them out for examination at almost every future appointment.
First came the mammogram, which was not as painful as I imagined it would be. Sure, it wasn’t pleasant, but I did think it would hurt more as they squished my breasts like pancakes. I then went in for the ultrasound and the technician spent a lot of time taking images of my right breast. Because of the angle she had me lying in, I couldn’t see any of the images on the screen so I didn’t know what she was looking at. I had no doubt there was a lump in my breast though, because it was pretty obvious to me when I felt it.
The technician went out and got a doctor to come in and take a look at the images on the screen and this should have been my first red flag that something was not quite right. But I’d never had a mammogram and ultrasound on my breast before, so I didn’t know what was usual and what was unusual.
The doctor mentioned that I had an enlarged lymph node under my right arm and I told her I had been sick lately and unable to shake a cold. She said I needed to come back the next day so they could take a core needle biopsy of the lump in my right breast and a fine needle aspiration of the lymph node. There was some strange Medicare rule that meant I would be charged more or not get a rebate if they did the ultrasound, mammogram and biopsies on the same day so a return visit was required.
That was around the time I began to see the sad, sympathetic faces from the doctor, various technicians and the counter staff. I guess they had seen this process before and knew that if you had to have these tests, they were probably all leading to breast cancer.
The following morning I was back at the imaging centre for the biopsies. The core needle biopsy was like a pen being clicked into your breast several times, while the fine needle biopsy was just that, a fine needle inserted into the node drawing out material for testing. I was told the results would be delivered to my doctor by Saturday. My doctor had told me that I would be called in to get the results in-person, whether they were positive or negative, so I waited to hear from the medical centre.