Three years ago, I found a lump. Actually, my then-boyfriend found a lump, which is way worse. Nothing kills the mood like the possibility of breast cancer. It was a tiny, bean-shaped mass on the bottom of my right breast that moved a bit if you pressed it too hard.
We discovered the lump on a Friday night, so I wouldn’t even be able to call the doctor for a few days. And if that unpleasant cloud of uncertainty wasn’t bad enough, the boyfriend had questions that I embarrassingly couldn’t answer.
“How long have you had that?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never noticed it before.”
“Well when was the last time you examined your breasts?”
“Um…probably when my gynecologist did it.”
“Which was when?”
“My last appointment.”
“And that was how long ago?”
“Um… a few months? Maybe it’s on my Google calendar.” It wasn’t.
I felt really irresponsible about the whole thing. At 26, I didn’t know anyone my age with breast cancer. But all three of my paternal aunts developed the disease. With that kind of risk, I should have taken my health more seriously. And a quick, regrettable Google search for “age 26 breast cancer” proved that it is possible to get a breast cancer diagnosis so young.
A few days later, my doctor confirmed the lump and ordered an ultrasound of both breasts to be safe. The first round of ultrasounds was inconclusive, although they did manage to find a second lump on my left breast. The follow up ultrasound three months later was concerning enough that I had to get a mammogram. The mammogram led to a biopsy of both lumps. I was officially freaking out.
After a biopsy, the doctor inserted a little clip into my breast tissue to mark the spot that had been examined. I then had to get a mammogram to make sure the clip was put in the right place. I was sitting in the mammography room waiting for the technician when I saw a chart on the wall about the average lump size at different stages of discovery.
Lumps discovered during regularly scheduled mammograms were by far the smallest. The lumps seemed to get exponentially bigger the less a woman examined her breasts. I actually felt thankful in that despite infrequently examining my breasts, which normally results in a lump the size of a Peanut M&M, my lump was closer to the average for a woman who regularly examined her breasts, which is the size of a regular M&M.
Both biopsies came back negative for cancer, thank goodness. But the experience inspired me to get serious about my breast health. I set up a monthly Google Calendar alert for a breast self-exam. Since then I’ve found a third lump that has initially been ruled benign. Apparently, I have very dense breast tissue that is prone to developing cysts. This type of tissue can put me at a higher risk later on in life, so it’s all the more important that I know exactly what everything feels like and if there are any changes.
Breastcancer.org reports that one in eight women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. It’s even more important during Breast Cancer Awareness month to show our support and honor their fight. But to really get in behind breast cancer awareness, you need to make sure you are on top of your own breast health. None of your pink accessories matter if you’re not going to take October’s message to heart.
If you only do one thing in October in the name of breast cancer awareness, it should be to set up a plan for early detection. The American Cancer Society recommends that women start doing at least periodic breast self exams in their 20s. While most lumps or changes to your breast at this age will be benign, you’ll establish a baseline for how your breasts normally look and feel. Women should receive regular mammograms by age 40. However, if you have a history of breast cancer in your family, you may want to speak to your doctor about starting earlier.
I highly recommend setting up a monthly alarm for self breast exams. It’s best to do these exams during or after your shower, and during a time when your breasts aren’t swollen (so not while you have PMS or are on your period). The National Breast Cancer Foundation also has a nifty, free Early Detection Plan app that will provide reminders about examining your breasts or setting up appointments for exams and mammograms with your doctor.
There’s so much more to learn about breast cancer and prevention, and this is the month to do it. Visit the American Cancer Society for more information.
(Images from iStock, PinkUpthePace.org)