One Sunday morning in 2005 I was checking my boobs, as you do, as you should, as you’d better, and I found a lump.
I had moved to London about six months before and I didn’t really know anybody, I wasn’t even that close to my flatmates. I happened to be on Flickr and I’d just been chatting to a girl I had never met but had talked to for a while, so I told her. She was lovely, and reassuring, with just the right amount of urgency, and managed to put my mind at rest so much that I was able to continue to function, whilst making sure I realised the importance of doing something about it.
Not that I wasn’t aware of that, because I was. Breast cancer is a thing very close to my heart, because my grandmother had it, and it is what ultimately killed her, by spreading to her spine and brain. This is why I have no memories of her, because breast cancer took her away. All I have is photos, and she must’ve been sick in those photos. I know she had it twice, and if she wasn’t dying in the pictures, it still, at the very least, hovers in the shadows. I buy every trinket I can justify for Cancer Research UK, over time I have bought at least twenty different pins (including the Swarovski crystal one they made in the early 2000’s, which I have since lost and am gutted about because it was beautiful), travelpass holders, all kinds of stuff. I’ve never bought any of the workout gear they sell in Peacocks because that tends to be branded for the Race for Life and I’ve never done it, so wearing a t-shirt that appears to claim I have feels wrong. I sponsor people who do runs, walks, anything for this charity. It is my chosen charity, and I will not feel bad that it means I’m not sponsoring a child or a donkey or a retired librarian, because I have considered the options and decided that I want this disease to stop taking grandmothers, and mothers, and sisters, and daughters, and aunts and mentors and best friends and I definitely, definitely do not want this disease to take me.
In London, one Sunday morning in 2005, I was generally very healthy, and I hadn’t actually bothered to register with a doctor. It hadn’t really occurred to me, it was so long since I’d needed a doctor for anything, even longer since I’d gone to a doctor and they’d actually been able to *help* with anything. However, I lived across the road from the Royal London so I looked at their website and decided to go to their walk-in centre the very next morning, first thing, before work.
I got through the day and the next morning I got up bright and early and went along to the walk-in centre. The first thing they made me do was fill in a form, explaining why I was there and who my doctor was. I had no doctor in the area so I wrote down my family doctor, hundreds of miles away, and no idea how to explain why I was there, so I said “I found a lump in my breast”. I handed in the form and sat down to wait. Soon after I was called over by the receptionist who asked me, unnecessarily loudly, about the bits of the form she didn’t like. This pissed me off because so what if I didn’t have a local doctor? And why does this woman need to know any more about my current situation than I’d already told her? So I clarified what I’d already said (frankly by saying it again whilst looking into her eyes and trying to convey the fact that this was all the information I had to give) and again, I sat down to wait.
Eventually my name was called. Or at least, I thought I heard my name called, but then some other woman got up and rushed through the door, so I sat back down. Two minutes later, this other woman was ushered out of the same door and the doctor, again, called my name, so I got up and went with her. I explained why I was there and lay on the table, and she put her hand in my bra and felt the lump.
She tried to set my mind at rest with the usual stories, that I was too young for breast cancer, it would be freakish bad luck if it was cancer, that there was nothing to worry about, most likely. What I heard was “you’re not a priority, it’s *probably* nothing so we’re not going to take you too seriously, you’re probably wasting my time here”. She told me she’d refer me to a specialist, again making sure to reassure me it was all a waste of time (paraphrasing based on what my mind heard) and away I went. I went off to work thinking that at least something was underway, I’d done my bit, I hadn’t imagined the lump because she felt it too, and I was now ‘in the system’.
I waited and waited, and finally I got a letter with an appointment, six weeks from the time the letter arrived. I had an appointment at St Barts for which I’d need to take a day off, because I was going in for a series of exams. I was incredibly lucky that all these exams would be done, and the results received on the same day. As I understand it had this happened back home it’s very possible I’d have been called in for each exam one appointment at a time, waiting for the results of each before being booked in for the next. Now #IlovetheNHS as much as the next girl but we all know this could take weeks, or months.
So I booked the day off work, and I held it together (mostly) and on the day, off I went.
The exams obviously involved easy access to my boob, so I had to wear a hospital gown and nothing else on my top half. This felt weird, especially the bits when I was sitting in the waiting room between exams, although I realised how stupid that was as I sat opposite a family gathered around a matriarch in an identical gown, obviously waiting for results that they were all trying not to think about. I like to think that she was waiting for the all clear, and she got it. I’m happy to imagine a happy ending, if I think about the alternative it feels like I’m jinxing something.
The first part was the manual exam. This was very strange, because I had to sit on a table while a man with a massive moustache, called Mister Mouhammed (honest to God) felt for the lump. There was a nurse there, presumably some kind of chaperone, but he was very professional and didn’t come across in any way creepy. That was quite an achievement with the moustache on him, but he managed it. Mister Mouhammed felt the lump and I thought, yes, I didn’t make it up you know, and then he told me that the next step was an ultrasound exam, and I was to wait in the waiting room.
And so I waited. And this was where I saw the family. I hope they’re all well.
Next I was called into a different room. I remember the room they tried to take me into had someone in it so we had to find another. The next part of the exam, the ultrasound, required me to lie on a table, and at this point I saw a lady doctor and her student, also a woman. The student got to do the exam bit, under the supervision and guidance of the actual doctor. I didn’t mind this, I never mind this unless the problem is something I’m genuinely mortified to have to discuss. I’m sure this is silly but it’s just the way it is. We all have our limits, no matter how much we want not to.
I lay on the table and the cold stuff was squirted on, and out came the ultrasound wand. It was just like the one you see on telly, when a pregnant woman is seeing her baby for the first time, or whatever. They saw the lump on the screen, and I was through to Biopsy Boot Camp. I wish I’d asked for a printout.
The biopsy took place straight after the ultrasound, the same doctors, the same room, I didn’t even have to get up. I was quite comfortable really, and doing my usual nervous thing of trying to make everyone else feel comfortable. I’m laughing and joking flat on my back, trying to find out what has formed a mass in my breast and not even knowing what the possibilities are.
First of all there was a little local anaesthetic. I was glad of that, because I’m aware that biopsy involves taking stuff *out* of the lump and I couldn’t help but picture those massive tubes they use for getting ice cores out of the Arctic, you know, the ones that are about a foot across and twenty feet long. I realise that a biopsy needle is much, much smaller, but you know how the mind works in these situations. However it damned well wants to.
The biopsy was done by the student, and it didn’t go as smoothly as one might have hoped. It took about five minutes to get the cells that were needed, which is a long time with a massive needle poking around in your boob. And poking around it was. Pokey pokey, wiggle it round a bit, and eventually, finally, it was done.
So I was allowed to get dressed, and I went and waited again, for the results. I think I had a book, I assume I had a book, I assume I read, I can’t picture myself sitting staring into space, I’m very rarely the staring into space type. Especially not when feeling stress or pressure, I tend to stare into space when I’m feeling contemplative and not under any kind of deadline whatsoever.
Finally I was approached by a doctor, I can’t remember which one, I can’t remember whether I was taken into a side room but I would assume so. It was explained to me that what I had was a fibroadenoma, which is completely benign, not in any way dangerous, or harmful, or cancer. I was handed a leaflet. I was told that we could arrange for the fibroadenoma to be removed if I wanted, or if it got bigger, or if it didn’t go away itself, because sometimes they do. But this was all said from the angle of “it’s nothing, you can make something of it if you want to but it’s nothing”.
I left, I was very happy, I told my friend on Flickr, but I had nobody else to tell because I’d told nobody else about the scare. I didn’t want to worry anyone, and I thought, if I tell my mother or my sister they will worry, if I tell my workmates then it will be a bit too much information, I wasn’t close enough to them to be sharing boob news. So I had nobody nearby to share the good news with, but that was OK.
Four months later I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and I can’t help but wonder sometimes, given that nobody knows what triggers diabetes, did the stress of the lump have anything to do with it, play any small part whatsoever?
I still have my lump, and I keep feeling it, and it’s an odd feeling. On the one hand, before I found the lump I had always worried, what if there’s a lump and I don’t recognise it? Now I know what a lump feels like, I know I would recognise another one if I found it. On the other hand, I have this lump and every so often I feel it when I’m getting dressed, and I wish I didn’t. I may be covered in scars from being one of the clumsiest people in the world, but this is like a scar on the inside, there’s no funny story to recount when I point to it, it is just a thing that shouldn’t be there, a foreign body that my own body made from itself, making it not really foreign so much as an outsider in its own home. It is out of place and awkward and do I need it?
But then, do I need to have it removed? I don’t even know what my current doctor feels about the situation, so what I will do is I will make an appointment to go and speak to my new doctor, and ask what he or she thinks, and I think if I am offered the option, and if it can be done under local anaesthetic and let me sleep in my own bed that night, I might have it removed.
I am not attached to my lump, after all.