Breast Cancer Awareness Month - My Diagnosis Journey
As we come toward the end of National Breast Cancer Awareness month, I figured it was time to share with you my own experience of diagnosis and the importance of checking your own breasts regularly. That goes for you fellas too!
Now, I'm not here to fill you with facts, figures and stats. I'll leave that to the professionals. I'm here to share my story in the hope that it might help others.
There was no moment where I was sat at a consultants desk and delivered the devastating blow. My diagnosis happened in stages.
My story begins one Saturday night. I was feeling fine. If anything I was probably at the fittest I'd been in years after making a conscious effort to get more exercise. I'd lost weight, but had been trying to. There was nothing to ring any alarm bells. Just an ordinary day. I went to work, came home, made tea. An absent minded itch to my right breast - Hang on, something didn't feel right.
I'd never been happy with my 34A's, far too small, but I never thought I'd be someone at risk from breast cancer. I didn't think they were big enough and so never bothered checking them. First mistake. That itch potentially saved my life. Only later did I learn that an inch can be one of the many symptoms of breast cancer. The itch didn't feel right, the skin under my finger tips felt denser. A shudder ran through me. I felt sick. Sitting down I was scared to touch it again but knew I had to. The skin felt hard, shaking I pressed harder and discovered the reason. Beneath it was a small hard lump.
I told nobody. I felt it was pointless anybody else worrying over the weekend. Of course I googled, in the hope of finding a reassuring answer. Monday I was at the Doctors. Normally one to put off going, I knew something was wrong. My Doctor however didn't seem worried. "It's small, it's mobile. I'm pretty sure it's just a cyst" she said, however the NHS have a 2 week rule within which you must be seen at the breast centre to confirm diagnosis.
I couldn't stop worrying. There is no history of breast cancer in my family, but I'd watched both my Mum and my Dad go through cancer and one of my best friends had died from breast cancer. I decided to go private to try and find piece of mind. Every day is a living hell when you have the fear of cancer hanging over you.
The private hospital is much like any normal hospital. Clinical and unwelcoming. I wait until I'm called in to see a consultant. I go through the same conversation I had with my doctor. Where is it? When did I find it? Is it painful? It wasn't painful at all, not until it had been continually prodded and poked.
For the first of what would be many times, I remove my top and lay on an examination table. The consultant found the lump straight away. It was drawn around in biro and I was sent for a mammogram. Serious faces look over me. "Try not to jump to conclusions" said the nurse as she led me over to wait.
Inside the room the mammogram operator (they probably have another name, I told you I'm not here to give you facts) struggles to get my little 34A into the machine which will clamp down on it to get an image. It hurts when the lump is pressed yet again. As she looks at the images she asks me if anyone has told me anything. I think it's an odd question, we all know what they're looking for. She sits me back outside the room, away from the eyes of other waiting patients whilst she goes to let the radiographer know I'm ready.
You know that feeling you get when you think someone is talking about you? In this case they were. I knew the mammogram lady was saying something to the radiographer about me. I'm called in, again I lay on another table, this time for an ultrasound. I watch the machine as she runs the scanner over the biro mark. A large dense black dot stares back at me. She takes images, then, whilst I'm still laying there, I hear the line that I hear in my head every single day on a loop, and probably will for the rest of my life "We've got a problem here".
She tells me that from the results of the mammogram and the ultrasound she is 99.9% sure I have cancer. This is without a biopsy even, the biopsy, she says will simply be to determine the type of breast cancer and the treatment. I ask how soon they can do the biopsy. She says for the cost of it, I would be better off waiting for the NHS and spending the money on a holiday afterwards- that's how much it is. I don't care, I want to do it, but she also says it will be ultimately no quicker. 'Afterwards?' I wonder when 'Afterwards' will be and what lays ahead of me.
I'm taken back to the consultant. More serious faces and a box of tissues are in front of me. I cry when he tells me what the radiographer has already said, only he's less emotive about. The nurse walks me out to the corridor and tells me to try not to worry "Things are much better nowadays, survival rates are increasing" I tell her about my friend and that I feel this is the start of something terrible. "That's your friends story, not yours. It doesn't have to be the same" and that is hugely important to remember, nevertheless I see my friend happy and smiling that she'd beat cancer and the devastating news when I heard it had come back and spread. There was to be no cure. I wasn't aware until it was too late. I never saw her again.
It was an odd time. I had cancer but I didn't know the extent of it or the treatment. All I could do was wait with this 'black dot' inside me. 'Don't be alarmed', the radiographer had told me, 'its not as big as it looks on the monitor'. I wanted it out, this thing that had decided to punish me and turn my life upside down, but it was one stage at a time.
The following week I have the biopsy. This is at the breast centre at Nottingham City hospital. Things start to happen fast now. I have been assigned a consultant and breast care nurse. I'm lucky I am assigned one of the best breast surgeons in the country, Mr Douglas Macmillan. I see the same radiologist I had at the private hospital, hence her suggestion I stay with the NHS now. I lay on another table. The black dot that is my tumour stares back at me once again from another screen. I imagine it grinning. I hate it. My radiologist tells me to hold the hand of the nurse at my side as she inserts a long thin needle into me and into the grinning black dot. The poor nurse, I grip tightly through the pain. The radiologist gets what she needs. She says she can tell from the tiny piece she has removed that it is of course a malignant tumour, and so begins the next wait. Two weeks until I know the type of breast cancer I have and the diagnosis.
People call you brave, or ask you how you got through it. Truth is, you don't have a choice. You can't change anything, so you live from one day to next, one appointment to the next and hope for the best.
One thing is for sure, the sooner you catch it, the better the prognosis. As frightening as it might seem, the longer you leave it to 'see what happens' the more chance you are giving that awful grinning black dot to grow.
Do comment if you have any questions or if there is any aspect you want me to talk about further.
So check those babies and then check them again.