In 2010 when I was 37, I found a lump in my breast one afternoon. The cold weather was making it hurt, and it itched. I tried to locate it again later, but failed. It seemed to come and go, coinciding with my period, and always itched, always hurt. Everything I could read on the symptoms suggested it was a cyst or a benign issue. My age, the fact it hurt, the fact it itched, the fact it seemed to appear and disappear according to my cycle. Not breast cancer.
By the time it stopped coming and going and became a constant, I had no health insurance. I could barely afford a trip to the doctor itself, never mind the potential for tests and treatments. The symptoms still suggested a cyst. Cysts were something I had before, and they always eventually ruptured and drained on their own. I knew how to take care of them, change the dressing, keep them clean and dry. So I waited. It was just a cyst.
As October rolled around, with the pink awareness everywhere, I decided to see what sort of treatment and diagnostics would be available to me. Weren’t there programs, especially in October, for low-income women for breast cancer screening? There were, but I was several years away from qualifying. It was only for women age 40 on up. I was too young for breast cancer. I had no family history of breast cancer on either side. I had two grandfathers who passed on from lung cancer after years of smoking, and a grandmother who died before I was born from pancreatic cancer. I stayed alert to possible symptoms for that, but that was the only one in my family. No one had breast cancer.
The cyst continued to grow, continued to not rupture and drain, and I remained in good health. I worked a physically demanding job as a certified nursing assistant, and for several weeks I was the only CNA on the floor in my wing for the evening shift. I kept up with the demands and the constant physical work without fail. I was doing fine. There was nothing wrong. How could it be anything other than a cyst?
I finally found a clinic that worked off donations, and I would be able to afford to go in and have the cyst drained. By now, depending on the shirt and bra I wore, the lump was sometimes visible. It had to go. But the doctor refused to drain it, and said she’d refer me to a surgeon for a biopsy.
That terrified me – not because of cancer, how could it be cancer? I was healthy as a horse otherwise – but the cost. I had no insurance, I couldn’t afford it. That was the whole reason I came to that clinic. But the program I’d found a few years earlier that I didn’t qualify for? It seemed that I did qualify for it, if I had a discernible lump. That information had not been anywhere I could find on the website. It wasn’t a commonly-known fact. I could have gone in years earlier under that program. But there was nothing to indicate that women under 40 could be admitted if they had a lump.
That took care of the biopsy. A week later, the results were in. It wasn’t a cyst, and it wasn’t benign. It was cancer, and the surgeon had already scheduled me with an oncologist. I had cancer. I knew the treatments would be harsh, I was under the impression that it was the treatments that led to problems that led to deaths from breast cancer. Breast cancer itself was a treatable, curable disease. That’s what everyone said in October. I’d be fine. I’d be just fine. I just had to be a fighter, and make it through the treatments and the surgeries. I could do anything, after all. I couldn’t die, I had too much to live for.
Breast cancer was curable. It was all about being a fighter, being a warrior, being a survivor. I’d be fine. I just had to dig down and fight this. Keep a positive attitude. Keep surviving. I’d be fine. That’s all it took. That’s all it was. It was a disease of women, and it was almost a rite of passage, you got the cancer, you did the treatments, you earned the survivor label, and you go on to participate in walks dressed in pink.
My oncologist sent me to the hospital for some more tests. One of those was a mammogram. I sat in a waiting room, younger than anyone else present, surrounded by pink and early detection buzzwords. I had a tumor that was already rupturing through the skin of my left breast. I was far beyond early detection. Signs talked about getting your first mammogram at 40 to begin breast cancer screening. I was 39 and had this lump for several years.
A PET scan confirmed metastasis to the liver. I was Stage IV. I went online and looked up what it meant to be metastatic, what stage IV was, and I couldn’t believe what I read. I wouldn’t believe it. It said that there was no treatment, no cure, no hope. But this was breast cancer. Not other kinds of cancer. I could still be cancer-free. I’ve heard stories of other stage IV women who were cancer free. These cancer sites didn’t know what they were talking about, they were talking about other cancers, not breast cancer. I could still be cured. I just had to fight even harder than I’d originally figured on. I’d be fine.
(Part II is here.)
About Susanne: A writer and retired nursing aide, Susanne was diagnosed with breast cancer, Stage IV from the start, in November of 2013 at age 39. Since then, she has become involved in MBC awareness, using her ability as a writer to draw attention to the cause. She currently lives with her wife and their three cats in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her blog is Metathriving.
Project Occupy Pinktober: Throughout the month of October 2014, I am bringing guest posts from people who have been touched by metastatic breast cancer. Breast cancer is not pink and fluffy; it is a killer disease. This is not about saving breasts; it’s about saving lives. Thirty percent of everyone who gets breast cancer will develop metastasis. There is no cure. The goal of treatment is merely to prolong life and reduce suffering. We deserve better. Please like and share these posts to spread the word. Thank you, Knot Telling.