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Years after my diagnosis, a self-breast exam reminder still hung in my shower; the same reminder that prompted me on Christmas Eve morning, 2003, to check my breasts. I knew the moment I felt “it” that something wasn’t right, but six-months and two mammograms later, doctors assured me “it” was okay. It wasn’t. This week, I spoke to a woman whose story is similar to mine. Like me, her breast cancer was found after she insisted the suspicious spot be biopsied, and like me, her cancer was hiding underneath a fibrocystic lump. Lump… Don’t you hate that word? Lumps are never good whether they’re in your breasts, the turkey gravy or they’re the dullard at work who only got the job because he’s the boss’s nephew.
Each week I meet women who had a suspicious spot their doctors opted to watch for a period of time. Not always, but many of those spots turned out to be malignant. If I had a “do over,” I would insist my fibrocystic lump be biopsied—NOW—as in let’s skip the waiting and the second mammogram. Go get your scalpel. I want to know what it is.
Think of self-breast exams as mapping your breasts. If you still have periods, choose the same time each month, preferably when your breasts aren’t tender, or if you no longer have a period, pick the same day each month and map your breasts. Most of us think we know our breasts when in reality, we don’t. The easiest way to examine your breasts is in the shower when your hands are soapy. Do you have a spot on one of your breasts that changes every month? Was it there last month? To help you remember where it is, think of that spot as the pointer on a compass or the hands on a clock. Is it north, northeast or maybe it’s at 10 minutes after 2. Do you know how it feels before your period and after your period? Is it sore; has it changed in any way? Get to know every lump and bump on your body, not just your breasts, so you’ll know when something isn’t right, and don’t be one of those people who say, “I don’t want to know.” If you find something you think is not right, call your physician and get it checked. Even if your doctor says it’s okay, listen to your little voice, especially if you regularly examine your breasts.
Even if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and have had a mastectomy and reconstruction, regardless of whether it’s an implant or your own tissue, continue to do monthly self-breast exams just to be on the safe side. Odds are slim that a breast cancer will recur from any remaining breast tissue attached to your skin, but be vigilant. Just like your monthly self-exams before breast cancer, do them at the same time every month.
When I learned I had breast cancer, I wanted both breasts removed so I wouldn’t have to worry about breast cancer returning in the other breast. The surgeon, however, told me he couldn’t remove the other breast because “it’s a perfectly viable organ.” Hello! What does that even mean? Capable of living on it’s own? Well so was the wart on the end of Aunt Gertrude’s nose, but she had it removed. I sometimes wonder if male surgeons think removing a healthy breast is tantamount to removing one of their testicles? Fortunately, in the last six years, more women are demanding, and getting, voluntary preventative mastectomies.
Four years after my first mastectomy, I discovered I was BRCA2 positive and had the other breast removed to lower my risk of recurrence. I shouldn’t have needed that surgery if the first surgeon had bowed to my request for a double mastectomy. Thinking back, I should have grabbed his scalpels and like the Karate Kid, assumed the “wax on, wax off” position and said, “No disrespect intended, doc, but these are my breasts and if I want them both removed, that’s what we’re going to do. Got it? Bonzai!”