I was 19 when I first felt the lump on my left breast. I was young then. I didn't worry about hardly anything, and I didn't worry about the lump. I asked my doctor about it during a check up. He felt it and told me it was "probably fine." Life went on. The lump remained.
After I had my first son, ten years later, I remember consciously feeling for the lump and realizing it was gone. I wasn't quite sure when it had disappeared but I remember feeling relief. Being 29, I wasn't as carefree as I had been in my late teens. I still felt somewhat invincible, having just created a life and birthed a baby, but a general wariness had begun to rear its head in me. Not even thirty, I had already known of a few acquaintances - my age- who had been diagnosed with cancer. Some survived. Some didn't. A tragedy and a rarity, for sure. But still, the idea that contemporaries of mine weren't immortal was unnerving.
Five years went by. Then I had my third child. I breastfed him, like my other two, and, like the two times before, I endured chronic clogged ducts. They were an annoyance and a pain. When I felt one coming on, I would submerge myself in a hot bath and massage my breast, trying to dislodge the clog. It was then, during a bath in April, that I felt it. The lump.
It was back.
At the age of 35, this scared me. It scared me because breast cancer at this age is a very real, albeit statistically improbable, possibility. It scared me because I know of people my age who have died of breast cancer. It scared me because my grandmother and my aunt both had breast cancer. And more than anything, it scared me because I have three children that I simply cannot leave.
I tried to keep it out of my mind, but I did make an appointment with my OB. She felt it, and, like the doctor sixteen years prior, said it was "probably fine." But she didn't just dismiss me like he did. She recommended I get it checked out by a breast cancer specialist, just to be sure. I made an appointment at the Breast Center at a local hospital. I waited.
It just so happens that right around this time, my oldest son, Braden, became somewhat intrigued by death. Being nearly 6 he actually was just introduced to the idea recently, when my mother's dog died. Prior to that, I avoided it. Because really, how do you explain it? How do you tell a child that someday, you will go away FOREVER? And they will never see you again EVER? Maybe it was me not wanting to face that truth, or maybe it was that I wanted Braden to live in ignorance for as long as he could. But when Snowey died, after living to the amazing age of 20 (!), I felt that Braden was old enough to know.
Where did she go? He asked me.
No one really knows. I told him. But she'll always be in our hearts, right?
I can't blame him for latching on to the whole death thing. Because really, what kind of explanation is that? But it's the only answer I could give him. For me, it's all I know.
In the months since, Braden has posed some pretty heartbreaking questions. Will you die? When will you die? How old will you be? Will I ever see you again? What if I miss you, can I see you then? Then who will be my mommy? I don't want you to ever leave me. Please don't leave me!
I assure him that Mommy will not die for a really long time. I tell him that people live to be really old - almost to 100! And that Mommy is only 35. And 100 is a long time away. The result has been somewhat comical, as he now asks pretty much everyone how old they are, and recently told my father (who is 70) that he is really old and will die soon.
In the weeks leading up to my appointment at the Breast Center, I didn't really stress, but these questions from Braden haunted me. I don't go around contemplating my own death very often, and I suppose I do assume that I will live to an old age. I mean doesn't everybody? But what if I was wrong? What if that lump in my breast wasn't "fine"? What if everything I told Braden was a lie?
I used to fear death for selfish reasons. I don't want to die, I want to live. It's simple. But during those tenuous weeks in June, when I contemplated what would happen if things weren't "fine," it wasn't myself I wanted to live for. It was my kids. I CANNOT leave my kids. I found myself praying that if, God forbid, I did have cancer, to please let me live until my youngest child hit 18. Just give me 17 and a half more years. That's all I needed.
When I went into my appointment on June 24th, I tried to relax. And I actually thought I was relaxed, until the nurse took my blood pressure and it was 130 over something. The doctor came in for an initial examination, felt the lump, and gave me the familiar, reassuring diagnosis that it was "probably fine," and that it was most likely a cycst or a fibroadenoma. But, just to be sure, he wanted me to get an ultrasound and a mammogram. He told me that it would be diagnostic - that by the time I left the appointment that day, I would have an answer. He acted like it was no big deal, and I felt relieved. I had been freaking out over nothing. I couldn't wait to get through the appointment and have this whole ordeal be over.
I waited, shirtless, in a waiting room with five other shirtless women with paper thin gowns on top. They were all much older than me - in their sixties. I felt weird. Out of place. Just get me out of here.
A different doctor called me back to get an ultrasound. She was annoyed because I was still breastfeeding, and she suggested I just come back after I had weaned. That is, unless, you have a lump, she said. I told her I did, and she sighed - acting annoyed she had to go through the motions. Well, we can do an ultrasound, but definitely not a mammogram. You can't do mammograms on breastfeeding women.
She put the ultrasound on my breast and her expression went from annoyed to serious. Having been through numerous ultrasounds with my three pregnancies, I can tell when a technician is concerned - when they aren't finding what it is they think they are going to find. There is usually a period of radio silence while they focus on the computer screen - their attention goes from you the patient, to you the specimen, and whatever concerning thing it is that they have found.
Well, it's not a cyst, the doctor said.
What about a fibroadenoma, is it that? I asked. I had done my google research, and knew that this was also a harmless, good outcome.
No, it's not that either, she said. See all this bright coloring there? That's blood flow. There is a lot of blood flow going through this mass.
Two things completely freaked me out about this statement. 1) That she called it a mass. It was the first time I had heard anyone refer to it as that, and it seemed so .... clinical. 2) That I had no idea the implications of that fact that there was blood flow in there. What did that mean? The fact is, I know nothing about this kind of medical thing. Ask me anything about pregnancy - about placental issues, gestational diabetes, cervical length, etc. I've done all the research, I can speak the language. But with this? I felt like an ignorant, uninformed patient with a doctor that was cold and unforthcoming.
It was then that the tears started. I couldn't stop them. They just flowed.
The doctor seemed uncomfortable as I started crying. She told me that she thought it might be a mammary lymph node, but that she couldn't be sure. She suggested getting a mammogram.
Okay wait, isn't this the same doctor that 10 minutes ago told me that breastfeeding women can't get mammograms? She left the room. Through tears, I texted my husband and told him to come to the hospital. I don't know why, or what I thought he could do. But I have never felt so scared. Or so alone.
I got the mammogram and cried the whole way through. I went back to the waiting room with the shirtless, 60 year old women, and continued crying. They stared at me, presumably feeling bad for me, assuming I had just had a horrible diagnosis. Finally, after an eternity, the doctor who gave me the ultrasound called me into a little conference room. She told me that the mammogram was consistent with a mammary lymph node, but that she couldn't be sure. She asked if I could come back the next day for a fine needle aspiration, which would confirm whether or not it was cancer. There it was - the word cancer was used. I wouldn't be getting an answer that day, as the initial doctor had told me.
I put my shirt back on, made an appointment for the next day, and found my husband waiting for me in the waiting room. He was teary eyed, and freaked out. I immediately felt bad for putting him through this too - for worrying him. I put on a braver face. I told him it was probably a lymph node and I overreacted before. I was probably right. But inside, I was petrified. I cancelled that afternoon's playdate. I just couldn't fake it that day.
I did the fine needle aspiration the next day. I waited two days. And then I got the results.
It's a mammary lymph node.
And just like that, it was over.
This was an exhausting experience. Absolutely exhausting. And while I am grateful - so grateful - that the result was a good one, it has left me somewhat unsettled. It has reminded me that life has no guarantees. And that my promise to Braden, while hopeful and genuine, may not be one that I can keep.
God, life is heartbreaking.
More than anything, it has reminded me that my children are my everything. I mean that. My everything. This life of mine is about them. Sure, I have my own interests, my own desires, my own aspirations. But when it comes down to it, they are my life. I want to be on this earth for them - to watch them grow up, to support them, to comfort them, to guide them. All the other stuff is gravy.
They need me, more than they need anyone. And I need them.
I will leave them someday - that's a fact. But I pray it's not anytime soon.