Shortly before my 40th birthday, I remember receiving a flyer in the mail, reminding me to get my first mammogram, since 1 in 8 women in the United States will get breast cancer in their lifetime. I thought, "Damn, that's high! That would be my worst nightmare...I hope I never get it!" (Ah, the irony.)
In September of 2014 (a month after my 40th birthday), I happened to do a breast self-exam and felt a small lump in my chest. (Admittedly, I am not the best at checking as frequently as I should. Thankfully, I felt myself up that day!) I remember thinking I should probably have it checked out, but not feeling particularly urgent about it. After all, not all lumps mean cancer.
I eventually scheduled an appointment with my OB/GYN. (I had just been there less than a year ago, and I was not old enough to have a mammogram yet.) He suggested that we do an ultrasound. At first glance, he suggested it may be a fibroadenoma (a non-cancer tumor made up of both glandular breast tissue and connective tissue), which would be nothing to worry about and frankly, a relief.
Since he could not say for sure, he sent me to get a mammogram and told me not to worry until we knew for sure. My longtime boyfriend (who was, and is, with me every step of the way to hold me up through it all, literally and figuratively) and I had kept telling ourselves that it may just be a cyst, which would be a relief, and there was no need to worry until it was necessary. In order to stay calm, I kept repeating this to myself until we could get a definitive answer.
The earliest I could get in for a mammogram was two weeks away. How do I stay calm for two weeks?! At this point, I could feel that the lump had grown considerably, which was freaking me out. It felt like a mini-baseball in my chest, and I just wanted to know what the hell was going on with my body already!
When we arrived for the mammogram, I presented my insurance card only to be told, “Oh, we don’t accept that here.” WHAT?! Recently (and surprisingly) let go of my job, I was now unemployed and with no income. Luckily, I had brought a credit card for emergencies (this seemed to qualify as one). They did offer an out-of-pocket option "discount" from the insurance price, but it was still ridiculously expensive! Like you don’t have enough to worry about with an unknown lump in your chest? I remember calling my mom and asking what I should do, and she reminded me that I couldn’t afford it. Thanks for the reminder! Then I thought about how long it took for me to even get this appointment, and if I canceled, how long would it take me to get another one? I was there and needed answers, so out came the credit card. To hell with more debt – I’d worry about that later.
I went in for my very first (and unknowingly at the time, it would also be my last) mammogram. The technician was friendly and chatty, which put me at ease and made this uncomfortable experience go faster. I mentioned that I hoped it was just a benign cyst, which would be a relief. Having recently celebrated my birthday with a beach getaway (where I was, ironically, trying to figure out my life), the technician remarked on my tan boobs as she squished them. I appreciated her chitchat, because it kept my mind off of what was about to come…
After the mammogram, I waited in my hospital gown to discuss results. When I entered the room, I could see my film up on the big screen, especially the large lump that had been growing inside of me. The doctor looked at me, and the first thing he said point-blank was, “It’s not a cyst.” I broke down in tears. HOLY S--T, I MAY HAVE CANCER. That little thing I had been repeating myself in order to not freak out was now no longer an option.
A large lymph node had also been felt, so he wanted me to schedule a biopsy on both the lump and lymph node the next day. Remembering that I just had to pay for the mammogram myself, I immediately asked, “How much will that cost?” He made a call to inquire on my behalf (I’d find out later that the doctors aren’t the go-to-person for insurance questions, but he could see the worry on my face and was kind enough to check for me) and recommended that I could go elsewhere that took my insurance, but he could not guarantee when I would get an appointment. What? No, I was scared and needed answers NOW! I scheduled the biopsy for the next day and kept my credit card handy.
We had recently moved to Los Angeles (where everyone drives) from New York City (where no one drives), so we did not have a car. As we were walking back to the bus, the words, “It’s not a cyst,” kept repeating in my head, and I finally had a moment. I asked my boyfriend to stop before we got back on the bus for a hug and a cry. What did all this mean?
The next day, I returned for my biopsy and paid out-of-pocket (again). Would I finally have an answer today? There was some confusion when I arrived, and everyone kept saying they would only perform an ultrasound-guided core needle biopsy (where they use a large hollow needle to remove one sample of breast tissue per insertion, and an ultrasound to watch the needle on a screen as it moves toward and into the mass) on my breast lump, but I reminded them that the doctor had also recommended one for my abnormal lymph node as well. After some discussion, they finally agreed to biopsy both. (One of the most important things I have learned through all of this is to ALWAYS speak up for yourself! If you don't advocate for yourself as a patient, who will?!) As I lay there with a needle going into my numb breast to determine if I had cancer, I stared at the ceiling, which thankfully had two tiles of trees to look at, which oddly helped. I just focused and breathed until it was over. A titanium clip (a tiny stainless steel marker, about the size of a sesame seed) was placed in my breast at the biopsy site, so that if my biopsy was positive, my doctor or surgeon could locate the biopsy area to remove more breast tissue surgically later.
After placing an ice pack on my chest and wrapping it to leave, they informed me that my OB/GYN should have my results within three days. I immediately called his office to make an appointment to discuss the results in a few days. Not wanting to risk the bumps and craziness of a long bus ride, we called an Uber to drive us home. I explained that I just had a biopsy, so please drive gently, to which he obliged. Now, all we could do was wait and hope for the best…
Two days later, on a Friday, I awoke to a voicemail from my doctor, asking me to return the call. My boyfriend and I thought that surely, he would not call with bad news, so we remained optimistic. I called him back while my boyfriend was home, but he was with a patient. Soon, my boyfriend ran out to pick up a mutual friend, and I could no longer take the suspense. Now home alone, I called again, and this time, my doctor got on the phone. The first thing he said was, “Are you somewhere quiet and sitting down?” S--t, that can’t be good. “I’m sorry to tell you that yes, there was cancerous tissue.”
WHAT? How could that be?? I was young, never had a mammogram and relatively healthy! I know we talked for some time afterwards, but I honestly don’t remember anything. I just know I went spontaneously deaf after hearing “cancerous tissue.”
As I listened through tears, we agreed to keep our appointment for the following Monday to go over any questions I may have. He promised to find me a good oncologist, and I informed him that the recent procedures had been paid out-of-pocket, so I had to find someone that was in my insurance network. He assured me that he would help me through this, and we would figure it out together. I hung up and cried like a baby. When my boyfriend and visiting girlfriend returned home, I told them the news and could barely finish without falling into their arms and crying. We just hugged and wept. What else can you do?