Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I’ve fielded a lot of questions about it. One of the most frequent is, “How was your cancer found? Did you have a lump?”
I understand why people ask. They are hoping for an answer that will reassure them. She found a lump. I don’t have a lump, so I don’t have cancer.
I do this; other women with breast cancer do this. We quiz each other on the particulars of our cancer. “What stage was your cancer?” “How large was the tumor?” If your tumor was larger than mine and you are fine now, then I’ll be fine, won’t I? There is still too much uncertainty when it comes to cancer. When tea leaves are our only guide, we all peer into our saucers.
Did I find a lump? No. Not a new one, that is. The first time I found a lump was more than 15 years ago. I was in my early thirties, and it terrified me. Dense breast tissue rendered a mammogram almost useless. A cancer surgeon performed a biopsy. The diagnosis? Fibrocystic tissue in my breasts. In lay terms, they were lumpy.
My lumpy breasts meant self exams were not going to be particularly effective. I knew that if I was ever diagnosed with breast cancer, it would be found through a mammogram.
That is how it happened. Something suspicious on a routine mammogram. A follow-up sonogram, then a biopsy. Then a few (long) days later, the diagnosis.
Here’s the ironic part. There was no lump. Or rather, there were lumps in my breasts but they were still not cancerous. I was diagnosed with an unusual form of breast cancer that does not form lumps. Luckily it does have a characteristic signature on a mammogram. That was what the radiologist saw. That was what set in motion the tests and procedures that led to my diagnosis and treatment.
That was three years ago. If I were not having regular mammograms, the cancer would almost certainly have advanced to an incurable stage by now. This sneaky cancer would have found its way to my lungs, my brain, or my bones.
Not all cancers are as readily found at a curable stage. Anyone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer would give anything to have had the opportunity to know before it was too late.
I had my mammogram today. (I still have one breast—and a higher than average cancer risk.) The results were just what I wanted to hear. No cancer. But if the news had not been good, at least I would have given myself the best possible chance to beat it by catching it early.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. If you are a woman over 40 and you haven’t had a mammogram in a year or more, this is a great time to get one. If you are a man, encourage the women in your life to get screened for breast cancer. And if you can afford it, make a donation to one of the organizations that provides free or low-cost mammograms to women who cannot afford them.