Thoughts on (Non-) Breast Cancer or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Tolerate the Bump

Hi. Nice to meet you. Take your shirt off.
Publish date:
August 3, 2015
fear, breast health, cysts

I’m going to come right out and say it: I have a neoplasm of uncertain behavior in my right breast.

Sounds kinda scary, right?

It’s not.

Seriously, it’s not. It’s a cyst. The long name above is a fancy kind of cyst that has set up camp in my right breast and will do nothing to jeopardize my health.

Remember when we learned about non-cancerous lumps in our breast in health class? And remember all those news stories and magazine articles and awareness campaigns for the other reasons we might have lumps in our breasts? …Yeah, me neither.

So, that’s kind of why I’m writing this. Because finding one of those unexpected suckers is pretty scary when we’ve basically been conditioned to associate “breast” and “lump” with "everybody cries." As my awesome Breast Health nurse practitioner said, “1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer while the other 7 are terrified of getting breast cancer.”

As it turns out, there are a number of reasons to have an unwanted little visitor:

  • Fibrocystic changes: Literally, changes in your breast tissue. “More than half of women experience fibrocystic breast changes at some point in their lives.”
  • Fibroadenomas (fy-broe-ad-uh-NO-muhz): “Solid, noncancerous breast tumors that occur most often in adolescent girls and women under the age of 30."
  • Cysts: “Fluid-filled sacs within your breast, which are usually benign. You can have one or many breast cysts.”
  • Injury: Ouch!
  • Lipoma: “A slow-growing, fatty lump that's most often situated between your skin and the underlying muscle layer. A lipoma isn't cancer and usually is harmless.”

These are the reasons on the papers my doctor printed out for me (“Because don’t Google!”) and their corresponding Mayo Clinic definitions. (Definitions are acceptable for cautious Googling.)

I was reassured, by numerous people, that I did everything right. I’m not saying that to toot my own horn and I’m not telling you what to do if you find yourself in the same position.

However, I thought I’d share my experience of what you might expect when you don’t have cancer. Maybe it will help you, in those first few moments of discovery, to have another mental avenue. I’d also like to throw a wrench into the digital fearosphere by contributing my own story of, “I don’t have cancer and so then, obviously, cancer doesn’t have me.”

* * *

Let’s say you find your unwanted visitor in not so much a self-exam, but more a “this body wash is really thick and isn’t washing off and-- Whoa! What the [censored]?!?”

You stay calm – you’ve read this piece and you know not to let your head go there.

You take the advice of qualified doctors and you “don’t Google!” Instead, you make an appointment with your doctor and, while waiting, you “don’t Google!”

Your doctor will do an exam and might tell you she thinks it’s a cyst and she’s going to order an ultrasound.

The ultrasound girl might be named Cori and she will squirt some jelly over the lump and smear it with a library scanner that takes pictures of the probable cyst.

You hopefully have a great medical group that sends the pictures to the radiologist who reads the results to the nurse who'll tell you the results all within 20 minutes of the ultrasound while you sit in the waiting room kvetching with two people twice your age about kids these days and their darn phones!

The very nice nurse, perhaps named Terri, might tell you that it’s a complex cyst and explain that normal cysts have fluid in them, while complex cysts look like a shaken snowglobe. Either way, there’s nothing to worry about. You would only start to worry if the snowglobe got more snow and began to firm up. AND even if that were the case, that doesn’t mean it has become cancerous.

Terri might also send you to meet with someone over at Breast Health because that’s what they do for anyone with unwelcome breast visitors – not just bad unwelcome breast visitors.

The Breast Health N.P. might be named Sarah and she might be wonderful. She’ll explain that most, if not all, women have cysts in their breasts that come and go with the woman’s cycle. Some stick around. She’ll tell you that your lump is a defined shape and is moveable (when pushed around). “All good things. All not signs of cancer.” Cancer doesn’t want to move – it latches on. It also doesn’t have a defined shape, “it can’t make up its mind.”

She might tell you that you have two choices: monitor it and get another ultrasound in 6 months, or aspirate it and still get another ultrasound in 6 months. If you do aspirate, there is always a chance that it could fill back up and then you’re basically in the same position you were, but having unnecessarily stuck a needle in your boob.

(Aspiration is when they stick a tiny needle in and suck out the fluid. Biopsy is to stick a less tiny needle in and suck out tissue. The word “biopsy” might not even be brought up at any of your appointments but if it is, and if you need one, it’s important to remember that 80% of all breast biopsies are benign.)

Sarah might recommend the first option. If in those 6 months, it gets bigger and gets uncomfortable, you can come back and she’ll probably talk to you about aspirating. If it gets bigger, that doesn’t mean that it’s gotten scarier, it just means it’s probably causing you discomfort.

She’ll tell you you’re good to go. And then you breathe.

* * *

This whole thing made me wonder – and made me kind of mad – why we don’t hear more about non-cancerous lumps. Is it cynical of me to think it’s because non-cancer isn’t important? It isn’t sensational, it doesn’t make headlines or make for a good human interest piece, it isn’t how season finales resolve, it isn’t what makes for best-selling books and their movie adaptations, it doesn’t have any 5K runs or colored ribbons… so we don’t hear about it?

What we do hear are the buzzwords (lump, breast) and exceptions (young, healthy, no family history) that make for a heartbreaking Today Show segment and, consequently, sleepless nights awaiting results. It’s like subtle training to immediately fear the worst and – wouldn’t you know – that turns out to be more harmful than helpful. It especially doesn’t help when the internet is more than ready – almost disconcertingly eager – to let you know that you probably do have cancer and you’re already dying.

Obviously, it’s just as important to understand and be aware of our bodies without sickness as it is with sickness. It’s important for our physical health, but possibly even more important for our emotional/mental health. It’s hard enough having multiple interactions that consist of, “Hi. Nice to meet you. Take your shirt off,” without worrying what will be found after you do.

My point is this: If you find a lump in your breast, worry a little less. Perhaps even, I say to you, do not worry; for who among us, by worrying, can subtract a single bulge from our boobs? Yes, be responsible and have it checked in a timely manner, but know that there are a number of reasons for your newest lovely lady lump and only one makes for a good Go Fund Me page. Know your health, know your resources, know the facts, and for heaven’s sake, don't Google.