I ignored my breast tumor

I ignored my breast tumor

On one of the many evenings after my virtual COVID-pseudo-high-school day, I stepped into my parents’ shower. The hot water provided relief from the aches that eight hours in a stiff dining room chair had caused. I don’t remember which of these showers it was when I felt the mass in my left breast, but I remember my silent gag. When my fingers grazed my chest I felt sick and lightheaded – not just from the pain of touching the mass itself, but how with every touch it felt like my body was screaming at me to go to the fucking doctor. 

I like to lie to myself and say that I went to the doctor right after I noticed the lump. But I waited – I waited months, at least. And I’d sit in the shower I’d used since I was eight and avoid touching my own chest so as to not remember that there was something there. When it became too heavy, I told my mom. Then the doctor. And then many more doctors. 

In most cases tumors in young women are not a concern. Fibroadenomas are painless, benign (aka non-cancerous), breast tumors which are common among young women. They’re smooth and moveable under the skin. But mine didn’t fit these criteria, which raised red flags. The tumor in my left breast wasn’t smooth, or easily moved, or painless. It was rough and large and could be seen through my skin before you even touched it. To add to these concerns, I have a history of breast cancer on both sides of my family, a source of creeping anxiety throughout my teenage and adult years. 

Childhood cancer isn’t uncommon – 1 in 285 children in the US will be diagnosed before their 20th birthday, according to the American Childhood Cancer Organization – but when I walked into the oncologist’s reception office a few months shy of my 18th birthday I felt embarassingly young amongst the many elderly women, chattering with their husbands and children. I sat down next to them, in between my parents. The kind-faced nurses who pulled up my Brandy Melville tops to prod at my breasts made small talk about my college plans, and their own children who were my age. I didn’t think my first experience with an ultrasound machine would be painful – and yet. I’ve ubered to an oncologist. I can’t drive, so I plugged in the name of the cancer center into the destination slot and prayed the driver wouldn’t say anything on the days when my parents had to work. 

It was just a few days after my eighteenth birthday when I went in for my surgery. I sat in the large room where surgery patients laid for hours, prepped and waiting to be carted off. I never saw the woman next to me, separated by makeshift dividers, but I heard her voice, rich with the rasp of a decades-long smoker, incessantly hitting on the young male nurse. My surgeon eventually came in, explaining the procedure. She explained where she would make the cut. She didn’t want it to be ugly. She didn’t want it to interfere with breast-feeding. Alongside her had been another young man. He was a med student, and he was going to watch the procedure. It was clear that this wasn’t a matter of discussion – no “is it ok if he observes.” I desperately wanted to have the courage to say “can he please not be here.” I didn’t care that he was a medical student, I cared that he was a man.  I still felt like a minor, I was still seventeen in my head. He can watch the procedure of a woman his mother’s age, but please don’t watch me, asleep and bare-breasted and barely legal. 

My mom brought me, once I woke up, my favorite stuffed animal from when I was little – Cubby, an aptly named bear, worn and stretched and missing tufts of fabric across her baby pink belly. I wanted a crunchwrap supreme from Taco Bell but I was too tired to eat, even though I was desperately hungry. I was told they would call me when the results from the lab came back. And I walked back through the gift shop, where shirts donned phrases like “Best Grandma” and I laughed. 

It's been a year and a half since they finally deemed my tumor to be benign. I still get emails from the cancer center, asking if I will make a donation, or attend breast cancer awareness events. I avoid tables along my campus where they fundraise with pink ribbons each October, not because I don’t care, but because when I think too hard about that spot on my body, I feel that creeping sickness again. It's not quite anxiety, it's something else. It’s like nausea, but from deeper. And in those moments I’m back in that shower – seventeen and scared – but this time I know that this isn’t an uncommon experience, we’ve just been quiet about it.

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