A couple of weeks ago, I found a lump in my breast. This was the first time I’d ever noticed anything in my breast – any change or anything to worry about, and spent the next 24 hours catastrophising the situation, expecting the worst.
Of course, it turned out to be nothing, but I had a week of being majorly stressed and anxious about it.
Here is how the whole thing played out.
Friday night – 7.30pm
It was a warm night, and I was wearing a loose fitting top. I was on the couch, reading in the quiet house. The only noise was from the sleeping puppy at my feet.
I scratched my right side and stopped. I thought I’d felt a lump on the outside of my breast. I flattened my hand and, using the tips of my fingers, prodded gently. There was definitely a lump there. ‘There is a pea-sized lump in my breast,’ I said to myself. I couldn’t stop pressing my skin, trying to get an idea of what was going on under there. How long had it been there for? It wasn’t painful – was that good thing?
I’d never thought of my breasts as being a health issue before. Now it was all I could think about.
Denial day. Refused to think about it which, of course, meant I thought of nothing else. My left hand was almost permanently attached to the side of my right breast, prodding at the lump, trying to determine if it was the same size as the night before. It was.
I woke up and sprang into action, heading to the Sunday-morning drop-in clinic at my GPs. He wrote me out a referral for a mammogram and (if needed) an ultrasound at a private imaging centre. ‘Make an appointment for as soon as you can,’ he said to me, handing me the referral form. ‘More for your own piece of mind than anything else.’
He asked me to make an appointment to see him again on Friday, saying that it may not be necessary and I could cancel if I didn’t need to see him again. I nodded. ‘In most cases, it turns out to be nothing, Renza,’ he said to me, clearly noting the look of unease on my face. ‘Get it checked out. Okay?’
I called the imaging centre and was given a 10.30 appointment that had just come up after someone cancelled.
I had no idea what to expect – I’d never had a mammogram before. My mum refers to them as ‘boob sandwiches.’ It was a perfect description! After contorting my body into the most bizarre positions to get the image, the mammogram was over and I was told that I would also need an ultrasound.
‘Is that bad? Why?’ I asked, panicked that it was because there was a problem.
‘You have dense breasts,’ I was told with no further explanation and I was too confused to ask what that meant.
I had an ultrasound and asked the radiologist what she could see knowing full well that you wouldn’t say anything. ‘Your doctor will have the results in the next day or so.’ Was all I could get from her.
Public holiday and I wore a gorgeous red spotty dress that fitted tightly across my breasts. I somehow felt the anxiety of the previous few days had lessened. There was nothing more I could do at this stage. I had found a lump. I had seen a doctor. I had been to have scans. Nothing more for me to do. But wait.
Let’s not discuss the ordeal of actually getting my results from the GP. But at 5.30pm, I had a call from the doctor I’d seen on Saturday who told me that the mammogram and ultrasound ‘looked good’ but I needed to see a breast doctor ASAP – ‘just to close out the investigation,’ he said. ‘I’ll cancel your appointment with me on Friday – I will fax a referral across the specialist now. Here is her number…..’
‘It’s okay,’ I related to the people I’d told. ‘Looks good. I just need to get the final okay from a specialist.’
Called breast doctor. Another cancellation meant I could get in to see her the following afternoon.
Appointment with breast doctor. She was absolutely delightful as was the breast nurse who took my medical history. The breast specialist wasn’t really sure why the radiologist referred me to her as the scans clearly showed cysts. ‘Did you tell the radiologist you are in pain?’ She asked me. ‘No – I’m not in any pain,’ I said.
She told me that there was nothing to worry about at all. The cysts visible in both my breasts are hormonal and incredibly common. They could disappear. Or they could get bigger and become painful in which case I should call her and she would drain them.
I had questions to ask and she answered them very clearly and gave me a few things to read. ‘You can call me anytime you are concerned.’ She explained that I really don’t need to have a mammogram again until I am fifty and if I was to find any new lumps, I should see my GP and ask that I be referred for an ultrasound. ‘You have dense breasts,’ she told me. Again with the dense breasts. ‘A mammogram can’t see enough’.
‘Thank you for seeing me at such short notice,’ I said, as was leaving. ‘And thank you for being so kind and answering all my questions. You’ve really put me at ease. Don’t take this the wrong way – I hope I don’t have to see you again.’
She let out a loud laugh. ‘I hope so too!’ She said.
That’s how it played out.
But it was interesting to be dealing with a health concern that is outside of my usual area of comfort. I was stressed – really stressed – before each appointment. I had no idea what to expect and I was unsure of what the process would be.
‘Why do you have to see the GP again on Friday?’ my husband asked me at one point during the week.
‘I’m not sure,’ I replied. And I wasn’t. Why would I need to see him again if the scan was all clear? And if it wasn’t clear, surely I’d need to see a specialist.
‘If the scan looks okay, why are you seeing a breast specialist?’ he asked me after the GP had given me the results.
‘I don’t know.’ And I started to worry again, the relief I’d felt just a moment before when I’d been assured that the scans looked fine suddenly evaporating. Could it still mean that there was something more sinister than a benign cyst in my breast? My hand automatically moved to the side of my breast again, probing for the lump.
‘Will the breast specialist do a biopsy?’ a few people asked me.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. Because I hadn’t asked the questions that I would have –that I knew I should have – because I didn’t understand this landscape. I didn’t know the questions to ask.
‘I’m out of my comfort zone.’ I told my husband. ‘I don’t know how this system works. I know diabetes. This? This I’ve got no clues about.’ I hated feeling this way. I felt out of control.
When I reflected on the week, I focussed on the positive – the good – outcome. I had seen every healthcare professional I needed to quickly – seeing them privately and being prepared to pay surely helped speed up the process. I had the answers I was looking for. But it was scary for a while there – because I had no idea how to navigate the system or know what to expect. I was stressed wondering what the lump was about and I was stressed trying to work out the system.
I take for granted that I have to operate within the healthcare system far more than I would like. But I have carved a place in the diabetes system where I am comfortable, confident and self-assured. It wasn’t always that way. I must have felt anxious one time. Surely?
Friday night 7.30pm
A week exactly to when I first found the lump. I was shopping in the city with my family. We ate sushi, we looked in shops, I found a dress to wear for World Diabetes Day. All without a care in the world about my breasts…