“What is that?”
With those three little words my husband began something that would change my life and my perspective forever. I was thirty-years-old, nine months pregnant with our third baby, and I found myself feeling for a lump in my breast.
When he said something I was half asleep and completely exhausted from another six day stretch of parenting our two small children without his help. He had just driven two hours from his restaurant to our home to spend his one day off with us. It was around 3:00 in the morning and now my husband was trying to tell me that he thought he felt something in my right breast.
“Stop being stupid,” was my initial, sleepy response. I don’t think I even rolled onto my back to feel for what he thought he was feeling. He didn’t give up this conversation easily. It became obvious by his continued and insistent tone that he was convinced that he had felt something and that he wanted me to at least pay some attention to his concern.
I begrudgingly rolled from my side onto my back, propelling my giant, pregnant belly over me as though it was a heavy backpack that happened to be slung over my front. Quickly and half-heartedly, I felt in the area he pointed out and told him again that he was overreacting. There was nothing there and I just wanted to go black to sleep. He suggested that I should have my midwife check it at my appointment the next afternoon. I quickly agreed with his request, mostly so I could go back to sleep. My mind was completely focused on the early wake up I knew we would be getting when our daughter walked into our room shortly after sunrise.
We went about our day like we had every day before. I mentioned my husband’s request to my mom that morning but truly gave his concern no further thought. My appointment with my midwife went like any other that had taken place late in this pregnancy or my previous ones. We heard the heartbeat, she checked whether I was dilated at all and we laughed as we discussed our expectations that I would go into labor before the next appointment a week later. As she was preparing to say goodbye, she inquired whether we had any more questions for her. I had completely forgotten about my promise to talk to her about the “lump” and was about to end the conversation when I saw the suggestive look on the faces of my mom and husband.
“Oh, one more thing,” I said with a tone obviously conveying the irritation I felt at even dealing with this absurd topic. “He thinks he felt something in my breast last night. Can you just feel for it and tell him that he’s being crazy? Please just tell him that I’m ready to burst and that my hormones are crazy and that what he thinks he feels is just things getting ready for this baby?”
This midwife has seen me through three pregnancies. She knows my sense of humor. After giving him an obvious and sarcastic eye roll, she told him exactly what I was asking her to tell him, then asked me to lie back on the table so she could check. No alarm bells were sounding off in my head.
She felt around the area I pointed out and didn’t say that feel anything obvious. No alarm bells.
She asked my husband to show her where he felt something. Still no alarm bells for me.
Then I saw her face change and felt that she was pushing much harder in a very small area close to my sternum. Quiet alarm bells began in my head.
“Oh yeah. I feel it. We’ll have you go for an ultrasound of that,” she said calmly. What?! Loud, screaming alarm bells were drowning out almost everything after that.
I remember looking back and forth from my mom to my husband wanting them to see that panic in my eyes so someone could tell me that this was all a not-so-funny joke. I heard something about needing to make the appointment as soon as possible because she wanted it done before I gave birth and before my milk would come in.
The imaging office had an appointment available for the following day so we made arrangements for someone to watch my daughters so my mom could accompany me to the appointment. My husband would have to return to work but I reassured him that I’d call as soon as the appointment was finished. Most weeks, my husband would leave after the girls were in bed to head back to his mother’s house. He was staying with her while he worked because it wasn’t practical for him to commute two hours each way between our home and his work everyday. I stayed in our home caring for our girls alone. We planned to move closer to his work after the new baby arrived. This arrangement lasted a year and taught me to deal with a lot on my own. This situation was not something I had prepared for.
I tried to act as calm as possible for the rest of the afternoon but I was terrified. The façade I had been maintaining finally crumbled after we tucked the girls into bed. Knowing I was overwhelmed, my husband decided to sleep at home that night and leave for work early the next morning. I am thankful he did because I melted down in the early morning hours.
Memories of that night are a bit cloudy. I was exhausted, overwhelmed and really just freaking out. The thought of leaving my husband to raise our (soon to be) three babies alone was terrifying. The prospect of going through treatment for breast cancer at 30-years-old while parenting our very young children was terrifying. Possibly having to explain all of this to my daughters at only 4 an 2-years old was terrifying. I worried about my girls being at greater risk of developing breast cancer because they would have a close family history. I worried about every possibility that could occur as a result of this discovery in the span of an hour.
I remember sitting on our bed, curled around this little life that was still growing in my belly and crying that I might never see him even start school. Scary stuff.
Sunrise came as usual. I must have fallen asleep because I awoke to my little 2-year-old alarm clock standing in the morning light asking for her breakfast. She was blissfully unaware of anything out of the ordinary and I took great comfort in that. Our day progressed the same as any other.
At 2:00 that afternoon I handed my excited babies to my aunt so they could skip naps to watch movies at eat popcorn at her house and headed to the ultrasound appointment with my mom. It seems obvious now but I remember being surprised that I was considerably younger than any other woman in the waiting room. Apparently, the breast health center isn’t a popular hangout for women in their early thirties. Who knew?
Everyone we encountered was only curious about my pregnancy. When was I due? What was the baby’s gender? Was this going to be my first baby? It served as a great distraction for the real reason for our visit but made the experience much more real to me.
They wouldn’t allow my mom into the ultrasound room but she sat in an interior waiting room just outside the door. She told me later she could hear bits of my conversation with the ultrasound technician who was a lovely woman and very interested in all of the details about my pregnancy. I think she tried to keep my mind busy.
The ultrasound was awful. I had to lie flat on my back for the procedure which, at that point in a pregnancy, can lead to numerous issues. My legs began to go numb. It became increasingly difficult to take a deep enough breath and I was beginning to feel dizzy. To get a good image, the technician had to press the ultrasound tool pretty firmly into my breast. This was when I first felt the lump that everyone else had found so obvious. I could feel the tool passing over something hard again and again as she searched for a good angle and image.
After what felt like an eternity of looking, the technician helped me sit up to catch my breath and said that she wanted to have the radiologist come into the room to take a look at the images right then. She said that my breast was doing a good job of camouflaging the lump, likely due to the hormonal changes caused by my pregnancy, but she thought she had gotten a acceptable image of the thing she was feeling. Her concern was whether the image was good enough to let them determine the next course of action.
As the door opened and closed quickly behind her I was able to get a brief glimpse of my mom. Her face was filled with concern. She was not handling being stuck in the waiting room very well. I tried to smile reassuringly but I don’t know that it helped her at all. I caught another brief glimpse when the technician and radiologist returned. It was obvious that seeing the doctor being brought into the room to look at the ultrasound was causing my mom more stress than she had been feeling before.
I had to lie back on the table again and the radiologist took over the ultrasound. She explained that she wanted to check the images and that this lump was pretty good at hiding in the surrounding tissue. When she was finished looking at everything she helped me sit up and gave her opinion on what she had seen.
It was a fibroadenoma. A what?! The insertion of any medical word would cause me panic at this point. She explained that it was a totally benign tumor that isn’t terribly uncommon in women my age. She said that the results, including her opinion would be forwarded to my midwife’s office. They would likely recommend a biopsy to confirm this information but she was confident in her diagnosis.
I heard the word benign and a wave of relief rushed over me that I still can not adequately put into words. The panic I had been feeling over the last 34 hours was almost enough to leave me curled in a fetal position and I was thrilled to hear a doctor tell me with confidence that she was seeing something benign.
My still panicked mother was staring holes through the door when they finally opened it. I quickly reassured her that they felt there was nothing indicting cancer but I would explain it all after changing back into my own clothes and checking out. The rest of the afternoon was consumed by retelling the details of the appointment to my mom, my aunt, my husband and each of my three sisters, all of whom had been notified by my mom of the adventure we were experiencing.
Two days later I was back at the hospital giving birth to our baby boy. It was amazing to go from such fear to such joy. The thought of the lump was pushed to the back of my brain while we were enjoying our family’s newest addition.
Reality jolted back into my life when my milk came in a few days after Luca was born. I was going to take a shower when something unusual caught my attention in the bathroom mirror. I was so shocked that I stared the reflection of my breast trying to understand what I was seeing. My newly firm and very swollen breasts showed the exact thing I was avoiding thinking about. The lump was so big and obvious that it frightened me. Had it not been discovered a week earlier, it would have been unmistakable on this day. It was no longer possible to forget or ignore this thing I was still going to have to deal with. I felt like my own body was forcing me to look at it constantly.
For five weeks I continued my life trying to think about the lump as little as possible. I was confident in the radiologist’s opinion but, until it was confirmed with a biopsy, I couldn’t be 100% comfortable. Now that it had been shown to me so glaringly by my own changing body, I was noticing it countless times each day. I could see it in the mirror and could easily feel it when before I had been unable to feel anything at all.
At my post partum check up five weeks after Luca’s birth, the midwife told me that their practice recommends that women have a fibroadenoma surgically removed with a lumpectomy. They don’t want women feeling it forever, trying to gauge whether it has changed and worrying about what could be hiding in the same area. Our health insurance was being cancelled in two days because the cost was increasing beyond what we could afford so any possibility to have surgery would soon be gone. I asked if it could just be left alone. This plan was not going to be acceptable to my lovely midwife.
The surgeon’s office was a few buildings away and I was rushed into his waiting room with my newborn son in tow. He reviewed the information forwarded to his office and scheduled surgery for the next morning. Much like every other day in this adventure, that afternoon was a whirlwind. My husband had to make arrangements to get coverage at his restaurant so he could be home for my surgery. I had to find a sitter for our three children because my mom and older sister were out of town visiting my two younger sisters. Nothing in life is easy when living two hours away from your significant other’s job but we managed to make it all work that day.
Surgery didn’t scare me. I was excited to have this thing removed and the diagnosis of a benign nothing confirmed. My husband and I told the surgeon that we didn’t care about scarring and that we didn’t want him tunneling to find the lump just to hide or reduce the scar. We actually laughed through most of my pre-op and post-op time in the hospital. My husband took some very unflattering pictures after the anesthesiologist gave me something to “calm” my nerves. He posted the photos below on Facebook, with my consent, for all to see and laugh at.
Following surgery the doctor talked to my husband while I was still sleepy. He was told that the tumor that was removed looked like a fibroadenoma and that it was the size of a large marble.
The daily operation of the restaurant required him to go back the day after my surgery so my husband returned to work. Just as I had six days after our son was born, I pulled myself out of bed to continue healing and to care for our three children alone. The diagnosis of a fibroadenoma was confirmed a week later and I was relieved that this adventure was over.
The scary thing about this experience was that I had allowed something to grow, unnoticed and unchecked in my body until it was the size of a large marble. After it was pointed out to me, it was so obvious that it was there. How had I let this go unnoticed for so long? What if my dismissive attitude had won over my husband’s concerned insistence that I have I checked? How bad would my prognosis have been if it had been malignant instead of benign?
I wish I could say that this is as close as I have gotten to an experience with breast cancer, but just over six weeks after my surgery my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is a fulltime grandma and uninsured. If it hadn’t been for my experience she might have declined to get a mammogram when her primary care provider recommended she have one done just to be safe. Her tumor was too small to have felt in a self exam but it was malignant. After a lumpectomy, radiation and medication, she is now cancer free. Yay!
I am grateful everyday for my experience. When my husband felt that lump I was initially scared that it might be too late for him to have saved my life. My life didn’t need saving but he did save my mom’s life. His discovery that night set us on a terrifying path that turned out to be great news for everyone.
The scar left by my surgery sits high on my right breast. It peeks out of bathing suits and bras and is visible in tops with low collars. It is a constant reminder not to take our good health for granted and to always be vigilant in protecting ourselves from the things we may not see right away. I remain grateful that my husband was insistent that he felt something, insistent that I get it checked and my rock when my world was collapsing.
Don’t take your own health or that of your loved ones for granted. Shamelessly remind the women in your life of the importance of self exams and routine mammograms. The reality is that something can grow to an unimaginable and dangerous size and you could not even know that it is there.
** If you like this or anything I’ve written please share the love! Share it on it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or send it around in one of those annoying chain emails! Print this out and stick it on our mom’s front door if she hasn’t had a mammogram lately! Text a link to it to your daughters and sisters if they aren’t doing self exams! Spread the word that our breast health is important!