The Diagnosis – Part I

The first time I felt the lump on the right side of my right nipple was back in February 2018. I honestly did not think it could possibly be cancer, not then anyway. I thought it was a fibrocystic growth because I had stopped the birth control pill after 10 years of constantly taking it. I thought it was just a random lump that would eventually go away.

I will take this opportunity to highlight the importance of doing self examinations when it comes to breast cancer detection. If it wasn’t for a self-check I would not have caught the cancerous tumor at such an early stage and perhaps I’d be telling a different story now. It was always important to me to get familiar with my body and know it well and this probably saved my life. The only way to determine if something is not “normal” on your body, is to get to know your body well. Clearly, as I am here to demonstrate, cancer does not discriminate based on age or much else, so no matter how young and healthy you are, start to get to know yourself through self-examinations every first of the month, make it into a habit! #feelitonthefirst.

Going back to the story, the beginning of 2018 was quite busy and intense, I traveled to the US, I also started the process of my separation and ultimately, my divorce. It was a painful time, I ended a relationship of 7 years and with that, I forgot for a little while about the lump on my right breast. I was going through a lot emotionally and decided to dedicate a bit of time to myself and to my own introspection. I wanted to make sure I was addressing some of the issues that led me to where I was. It was around July that I started to notice that the little lump on my right breast was not as little anymore, and after a conversation with one of my best friends, when she called me a dumb idiot for not checking it, I decided it was time. At that point I had made several excuses not to get it checked, I had some insurance issues and I realized later on that deep inside I was just terrified that it could be something serious, but well, in the end, I had to get it done.

I made an appointment with a gyno to get it checked. She examined me and had a bit of a concerned face. She referred me to a general surgeon and ordered an ultrasound. She said it was best to follow up with a surgeon and he will decide on the need of a biopsy. I was sent to his office immediately for another exam. I entered his office and explained it all over again. He asked me the same questions as I started to take off my top and bra once again: “Are you married? When did you feel the lump? Have you felt it’s grown? Have you had any nipple discharge or changes to your health? Does it hurt?” The answers to all were no, except I wasn’t sure if it had grown.

It was ironic, then I realized that I was actually feeling at the healthiest I had for a long time. I was working out 4-5 times week, I had high energy every day, I was eating well after I had gotten my food right with the help of a nutritionist. The only bad thing I was still doing was smoking, a habit I picked up at 14 years old and was too much of a pleasure to quit, but everything else was in order. I was a healthy 31-year-old who had never had any serious health problems. My only time inside an operating room was when I got my tonsils removed, that’s it.

breast cancer in young women. Young adult breast cancer.
I took this photo one day after my diagnosis

The surgeon was not happy. The lump on my breast was a “hard, uneven mass” and we needed to do an ultrasound right away. Tomorrow. We made the appointment as I was still telling myself that it was nothing, that the ultrasound will turn out fine.

The next day I met the radiologist, a lovely soft-spoken man that made the experience a little less annoying. Removing my shirt and bra became a standard very quickly – it’s odd how this whole experience would eventually lead me to desexualize my breasts because of how often I had to show them to strangers. The ultrasound starts by getting cold jelly all over your breasts and axilla as the radiologist carefully passes through every part yet focusing on where the lump is. It’s an uncomfortable but not a painful procedure. During the procedure he did not say much, he asked me the same questions every other doctor had asked me and when we were done, he sat on his computer and printed a report and told me to take it immediately to my doctor. The report read “suspicion for high-grade carcinoma, a biopsy is recommended immediately.”

I can’t explain what I felt at that moment. First, I wondered how the radiologist could be so insensitive as to give me the report before the doctor could manage my expectations. Particularly since no biopsy had been done yet. Second, I panicked, I picked up my phone to google but stopped myself in the middle. I had made the mistake of going to a couple of these initial appointments on my own, and it wasn’t too smart. Yes, I like to think of myself as a strong, independent woman who can handle her shit, but this is not one of those things you want to be alone for. As I stepped into the doctor’s office, he told me to relax, that we still did not know much for certain and that the next step was to do a biopsy, tomorrow, ideally.

 I understood the urgency, however, that particular weekend I had booked a weekend away by myself to Zanzibar. It would be my first trip on my own after my divorce, a trip I really needed in order to get my mind in order, to do some introspection and move on from that phase of my life. How was I going to do that with this hanging over my head? I tried to remain calm. It’s fine, it’s just a lump. It’s not going to be anything. The doctor agreed to do my biopsy upon my arrival from Zanzibar, I departed the next morning to spend a few days with myself, with my fears, with my hopes, with my heartache.

Breast cancer diagnosis. Young adult breast cancer.
In Zanzibar

Those 3 nights in Zanzibar were a true gift. I learned that timing is everything and that trip came around at the perfect time to allow me to endure what was to come. I did not know it then. I spent four days by myself, in a room that overlooked the beautiful blue sea with a notebook and a novel by Isabel Allende. I walked up and down that beach every day, I meditated while inside the ocean – I asked myself tough questions and got to know myself better. It was enlightening and eye-opening. Relaxed, by the beach and with a cigarette and beer on my hand, I wondered what would happen if they tell me that I have cancer and the only answer I had to myself was “I’ll face it.”

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