I Was 17 The First Time I Thought I Might Have Breast Cancer

I found the first lump in my breast on New Year’s Day, 2012. It was 2 a.m., and I was showering after a party at my best friend’s boyfriend’s house. We were juniors in high school and had stayed up half the night drinking soda and playing with fireworks (we weren’t the kind of kids who threw keggers). I was trying to wash out the hairspray and thick, black eyeliner which made me feel more dressed up than usual, when I decided to try to do a self-breast exam. I have no family history of breast cancer, but I’m a bit of a worrier and my resolution was to be more proactive about my health, and a simple exam seemed like an easier start than quitting Diet Coke.

I felt up my left breast, just as I had been taught by various breast cancer awareness campaigns and fliers I’d seen in doctor’s waiting rooms. Arm over my head, poking around the outside circumference and moving inward, everything seemed fine. Then I moved on to my right breast, got to my right nipple and I felt a lump. A rubbery, misshapen little ball rolling around under my nipple.

Oh my god, I thought, do I have cancer?

I tried to just go to bed when I finished my shower, but I couldn’t stop my racing heart. I pictured myself in the hospital, losing my hair, losing my breasts. Terrified, I woke up my mother to tell her what I found. “Can I feel it?” she asked. I took off my pajama shirt and told her where it was, and her eyes widened as she rolled the lump around under her fingers. “I’ll call my OB-GYN in the morning.”

As a preteen, I was obsessed with my breasts. I was a late bloomer compared to most of my peers, and I was afraid they would never grow, or they would be so small that it wouldn’t matter if they were actually there. My mom bought me a copy of The Care & Keeping of You by the American Girl Library, and I read it more closely than my Bible. The illustrations taught me how to insert my first tampon, shave my armpits, and wash my face. But the illustration about breasts got most of my attention, as it showed what breasts looked like (on the outside) as they went through stages of growth. I would spend hours looking in the mirror, dissecting my breasts’ shape, size, nipple color, feel and more, using the illustrated chart as a measuring stick.

About two months ago, I found something again, this time near my armpit in my left breast. Sh*t. I felt the familiar panic, and continued to feel the lump as I tried to calm myself down. This lump was small and had a similar rubbery texture to my other lumps, but it was teeny tiny. And it was stuck – I couldn’t roll it between my fingers like the other lump. I decided to wait a while, to get through my next period to see if it grows at all, and then see about a doctor.

A month later, not only was the lump still there, but it had doubled in size, revealing a lump that felt just like my others. The familiarity was a relief, but I still needed to get it checked out. I knew the chances of it being cancer were super slim, but any sort of breast change that weren’t consistent with normal fibrocystic breast change could be problematic. Now that I’m living in Chicago, I asked friends for OB-GYN recommendations and got an appointment. Thankfully, I only had to wait two weeks this time.

The visit went just like any other well-woman gynecological appointment. The doctor performed a regular vaginal exam, and then palpated both of my breasts to examine both my old cysts and the new growth. “Yep,” she said, pressing onto my new lump, “this feels consistent with fibrocystic breast change.” Again, she recommended an ultrasound to confirm, and I had another two-week wait for the appointment.

I was familiar with the routine: check in, change into the robe, wait on the radiologist, take off the robe, ignore how weird the gel feels on your skin, watch the radiologist read the images. But this time, we didn’t see the little orbs. This time, there was nothing.

How could there be nothing? I thought. I definitely felt something, and so did both doctors.

The radiologist took the images, and my mind raced as I waited for the doctor to read them and get back to me. What on earth is it, I thought, if I feel something but can’t see it. If it’s not a cyst, is it a bad mass? Is it a weird complication?

The doctor told me that the new mass was a clump of dense tissue, and nothing to worry about. I breathed a sigh of relief, and my thoughts stopped racing. I had expected the mass to not be a big deal, but I couldn’t have predicted what the doctor would tell me next: “Your boobs are totally normal.”

She explained that having fibrocystic breast tissue is so unbelievably common that doctors simply call it “fibrocystic breast change” rather than a disease or condition. About 50 percent of childbearing women experience fibrocystic breast changes, which include symptoms such as tenderness before and during your period, cysts, and clumps of dense tissue – all of which I have. Some women also experience nipple discharge that is different from breast milk.

“But doesn’t dense tissue increase your risk of breast cancer?” I asked, knowing that dense tissue is an independent breast cancer risk and makes it more difficult to see tumors on mammograms (understandably, I had been doing my research). “Only after age forty,” the doctor replied. “Everyone under forty has dense breast tissue. This clump is normal.”

I already knew about all the different ways a fibrocystic breast could present itself, but I had never heard that it wasn’t a disease or a huge concern. When I wasn’t interested in removing the cysts at 17, my previous doctors had just stopped there without informing me of this crucial information. Now, for the first time since that initial scare, I had a full understanding of my breasts.

Of course, I won’t stop seeing doctors or doing self-breast exams (and neither should you), and I probably will grow a few more lumps and bumps in my lifetime. But now, my sense of body confidence includes a new appreciation of my fully grown, lump-filled, healthy breasts. They’re the boobs pre-teen me always wanted.

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