Finding the lump

“Feel this,” I said, taking The Boy’s hand and putting it on my right breast.

He didn’t even have time to finish his smile before it turned into a frown and I knew I wasn’t imagining it.

It was hard, round, pea-sized and definitely there.

We were lying on the floor, watching TV and my right arm was stretched above my head. Over the next few weeks and countless doctors appointments later, I learnt that it’s the ideal position to examine breasts, the action stretches out the tissue so that it flattens out and gives you more surface area to prod.

I don’t know why my arm was in that position that night.

I don’t make a habit of examining my breasts, usually around October when everything turns pink and I’m reminded that I probably should pay lip service to it.

I’m 32, healthy and have no family history.

Over the next few weeks, I put off having a mammogram but I would constantly check my breast. I couldn’t feel the lump when I stood up, but when I lay down and stretched my arm it was there.

Until one day it wasn’t. I couldn’t feel it anymore.

Score. I can just pretend that it never happened.

Then I got a letter reminding me I was overdue for a pap smear, another of those delightful tests that I wanted to put off but this time I dutifully trotted off to the GP. The Boy and I were trying to fall pregnant and after a few months of nothing I wanted to make sure everything was in working order.

I casually mentioned the now-missing lump to my GP and she referred me for an ultrasound. It was probably nothing but it wouldn’t hurt to check.

Mammograms aren’t ideal for women under 40, breast tissue is too dense and it’s hard to detect abnormalities, so we started out with an ultrasound. Lying there and chatting away to the technician while he did his thing, he said it was probably a cyst. They form, then they go away. Nobody knows why, but it’s nothing to worry about.

He kept the ultrasound probe in the one spot and asked if I felt anything. Nope, nada.

There was a lump there, but before I completed my freak out he calmed me down. It was benign. Phew.

My referral was just for the right breast, but seeing as I was already lying bare-chested on the table and he had found something in one, I asked him to check the other one.

We were happily chatting away when he focussed on a spot about two centimetres above my left nipple.

“Does this hurt?” he asked.

“Nope.”

“Any tenderness?”

“Nope.”

“Any nipple discharge?”

“Nope,” I said, still oblivious.

“I can see another lump.”

“Just like the other one?” I asked, unperturbed. Writing this down now, I can’t believe I was so thick.

There was a three second pause before he said, “This one is different.”

And that’s when I got it.

It was the way he said “different.” I just knew.

I had to wait a week for the results of the mammogram and biopsies to come in. People say the worst is the waiting, the not-knowing. They’re wrong. At least while waiting you can kid yourself that there’s nothing wrong.

Although I felt the cyst, I couldn’t feel those two lumps. I would lie down, examining my breasts and not feel a thing. But they were there. Even my brilliant surgeon needed a few seconds of prodding before he found the cancerous one, and that’s with experience and a mammogram which showed him exactly where it was. I would have had no chance of finding it on my own.

If I hadn’t felt that cyst, I wouldn’t have mentioned it to my GP.

If I hadn’t had the pap smear reminder, I wouldn’t have seen my GP.

If I hadn’t had the benign lump in my right breast, I wouldn’t have asked to get my left checked.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t done any of those things, then I wouldn’t be on the uncontrollable roller coaster ride that my life has become. I know it’s cowardly and my rational self calls bullshit on my emotional side because the thought that it could still be in there, dividing, multiplying and growing, fills me with revulsion.

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An upside to chemo

Showering bald. Seriously.

Who knew that a simple shower could give you so much pleasure?

When you don’t have any hair blocking the way, all those wonderful, warm jets of water gently stimulate your scalp and it feels amazing.

It’s a revelation.

It feels like a soft, light head massage from an army of nimble-fingered fairies. Not as strong as what you get at the hairdresser or as intense as the Orgasmatron metal head massagers that were huge a few years ago, rather these light little flicks that dance across your scalp with just enough oomph to make them rejuvenating rather than ticklish.

It’s not just me. Charlize Theron was all about bald showers when she was filming Mad Max.  “It was really fun to shower with my bald head. You have not showered until you’ve showered hairless,” she said.

And I found this on You Tube

 

 

There’s no right way to do cancer

I had a blog comment that made me think.

One of the reasons I’m blogging about this is to process my feelings. For me, writing is a way to work through them all and surprisingly, I find myself typing something I’ve never consciously thought of but when I read it back I get a jolt of recognition that yes, that’s exactly what I’m feeling.

Another upshot of sharing is that people respond to my posts and comments. It helps to hear from people who have gone through or are currently going through this because they get it and I value their insights.

I received a comment on a post that pointed out my bitterness and I had to stop and think about that post and the following response to it. At the time of writing it, I wasn’t feeling bitter, just sad. It was 16 days after my first chemo session and my hair was falling out. It was a short post, written in real time about what’s happening to me and my distress and fascination with how my body is responding.

Although I knew it was going to happen, it was still painful to experience and looking back, I’m ok with that. No one can tell you how you will respond when it happens to you. There is no right way to do cancer. We feel what we feel and we are allowed to feel it.

I think we need to feel it, otherwise it just bottles up until we explode.

I’d cried a few times after my diagnosis, but one day I lost it. In public.

It was early on, there was alcohol involved and it was the first time I completely left myself go. As all the fear, misery and yes, bitterness, burst out of me, my cry turned into a wail, the kind of gut-wrenching howls and heaving sobs that cause your body to convulse.

I wailed into my friends arm while The Boy rubbed my back, both of them trying to calm me down but I couldn’t stop. It’s true what they say about the floodgates opening, shutting them down is impossible, you need to let grief run its course.

Luckily, I’d had the foresight to meet in a pub, so it was dark, loud and we were sitting up the back so I don’t think too many people noticed.

But after that I felt a lot better and we all went out for burritos.

As for the bitterness, I admit I’ve had the “why me?” moments, I try not to dwell on them but at the same time I’m allowing myself to feel what I feel and grieve the loss of my old life.

But then I think, “why not me?”, one in eight women get breast cancer, I just happened to be that one.

Like the commentator said, there’s no playbook for cancer, we’re all muddling our way through it the best way we can.

 

Day 16

Sixteen days after your first chemo session is when your hair starts to go.

It’s very specific and turns out it’s bang on.

I was styling my hair this morning and when I went to wash my hands, they were covered in hair. Not a huge wad, but enough strands that when I rubbed my palms together they created a nice little hairball that I threw in the bin.

My palms were sticky from the hair product and the friction of rubbing them through my hair  had turned them into the hair equivalent of a mosquito strip. They stuck and they stuck fast.

When I was a kid and had a loose tooth, I would play with it, poking and wiggling it even though I knew I shouldn’t. It was too much of a temptation not to touch it.

I’m doing the same thing with my hair. I run my hands through it and each time a little bit more comes out.

I’m not too sure why, it’s a macabre fascination.

Maybe I want it to go, at least that way it’s done.

The chemo crop

“I need you to cut it all off,” I told my hairdresser.
For a second, he grinned like a child being told they can have all the toys in the store, rather than just the one. Hairdressers relish clients who want a dramatic change instead of the usual trim.

But his smile didn’t last long.

Like all great hairdressers, he’s perceptive and picked up that I said need rather than want and that I wasn’t smiling when I said it.

His hands on my shoulders, with both of us looking into the mirror, I told him why it had to go.

One of the hardest things about chemo is losing your hair.

For most women, it’s such an important part of our identity, that knowing it’s going to be taken from you without your permission is devastating.

I’ve always been a long-hair girl, aside from a short bob while living in London in my early 20’s I’ve worn it in long layers which trailed down my back.
I’ve left it out, put it up, braided it, curled it, bleached it, straightened it and coloured it.

It’s an accessory I’ve taken for granted, assuming it would always be there.

Last year I graduated to the lob, a long bob, which swished just above my shoulders but still long enough that I could play with it.

The first chop was just after the surgery. My breast care nurse was surprised that I was doing it so soon, a month out from my first chemo session, but I was adamant that it had to go.
It was about attempting to wrestle back some semblance of control over a situation where I am completely powerless.

The first chop
The first chop

So much about chemo is unknown. I don’t know how I’ll react to the medications, what my side effects will be or how well I’ll recover.

What I do know is that I’ll lose my hair, as much as I don’t want to, so the least I can do is decide when it goes.

I’m grateful my hairdresser took control of the situation. Rather than go all out with a pixie, we went shorter back and sides with long layers on top which I could still curl, style and play with.

It gave me a chance to get used to it my new reflection while still recognising it. I even grew to like having short hair, it took a bit of styling after the first wash, then I didn’t have to do anything to it, apart from some dry shampoo and finger combing, for the next few days.

Playing with it while I still can. I quite like the pink.
Playing with it while I still can. I quite like the pink.

Hair usually falls out 16 days after the first round of chemo. My first strands came out seven days later. And that was the moment it hit me, shit’s about to get real.

As strange as it sounds, I’d forgotten about the pain of the surgery and the devastation at being diagnosed. It had happened and I’d recovered. I also had minimal side effects after chemo, which lulled me into a false sense of security and helped me hang onto the delusion that I might be spared this.
Even though I knew it was going to happen, I freaked out when it did.

So I booked in for my second chemo crop the next day.

The second chop
The second chop

I was, and still am, terrified of washing my hair and finding clumps come away from my scalp. At least this way, there’s less hair to lose.

I still don’t know how I’m going to feel when it happens. I’ve got five days until it does.