Published on July 10, 2020
What I Learned from My Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Excerpted from Bald Is Better with Earrings: A Survivor’s Guide to Getting Through Breast Cancer. Published by HarperCollins, © 2015 by Andrea Hutton
On Thursday, August 20 I felt a lump in my right breast. I’d found a bunch of weird things over the years that resolved after I got my period or were gone the next day. This one felt different. I called my doctor, who examined me and assured me it was just a cyst. I was forty-one years old with no risk factors for breast cancer, so we didn’t think much of it. It felt round and solid, the size of a soybean. I kept touching it. The only thing that made me nervous was that it was a little painful. I searched the Internet for clues, and it certainly seemed most likely to be a cyst. I had a regular mammogram scheduled in a few weeks, but my doctor decided to set up a diagnostic mammogram sooner, on Friday, August 28.
I learned my most important lesson that day: Never go to a mammogram alone. You need a bosom buddy. I tell everyone to always have someone go with them, because this is where you find out you might have cancer. It’s in the way the nurse will let you know the doctor would like more pictures. It’s in the way she changes from bubbly and cheerful to quietly efficient as you go back for more images.
After an excruciating mammogram, I went back to the waiting room while they checked the results. Then the technician came to tell me the doctor needed more pictures — that is, more uncomfortable squashing. Then back to the waiting room. The technician reappeared and whispered in my ear that the radiologist wanted to do an ultrasound.
This is where your heart drops to the floor. I went back to the examining room and lay down. A nurse and the radiologist started the ultrasound, and I could tell immediately I had cancer by the way they were pointing at the screen and being oh-so careful not to show anything on their faces. I was lying on the table thinking, Oh my God, I have cancer. I can’t believe this. And I’m not saying anything because they’re not saying anything. Until finally I can’t take it anymore, and I say, “Obviously it’s not good, so when are you going to tell me?” The radiologist says, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We need to look at a few more things.” Sure, right. Did you guys not see the elephant that just walked into the room? A big, scary elephant with the word “cancer” written all over it? And they continue the ultrasound, pointing and measuring and clicking while my heart is pounding in my chest, and I’m trying to be calm because I want to be smart and aware and not pass out. Then they’re finished and they ask me whether anyone is with me. Like I said, not good.
So, never, ever go to your mammogram alone. In fact, starting now, don’t go to any doctors alone if you can help it. Obviously you can’t always have someone with you, but it’s really helpful when someone else is there. Sometimes there’s just so much information that it’s great to have another set of ears in the room — particularly if they can take notes for you to look at later.
I was lucky that my husband, Richard, had decided to come with me when I went for my mammogram. I wasn’t even sure why he’d wanted to come, to be honest, but later he told me that when he felt the lump, he was worried, so he thought he’d better be there. So they bring him in, and I’m sitting up now in my gown, kind of shaking, and he holds on to me, and the doctor says that he’s going to say some things, and we’ll probably forget almost everything we hear. My husband says, “Oh no we won’t.” The doctor looks at us sympathetically and says there are actually two lumps in my right breast, and we won’t know for sure unless they do a core biopsy, but there’s cause for concern. Now I’m shaking like a leaf, but I am completely aware of everything that he’s saying. In fact I say, “Ignore the fact that I’m shaking. I understand everything you’re saying.” My husband is holding my shoulders, and we’re staring at each other, and we’re listening while he tells us they can do the biopsy now, or we can wait and make an appointment with a breast surgeon and then they’ll order it. We agree that there’s no time to waste — we’re assuming it’s cancer, right? The sooner you start doing stuff the better.
So they numb my breast as best they can, and then they stick in this giant needle with a kind of sucking thing on it, and they dig it deep into my breast, because that’s where the lumps are, and it hurts like hell. They keep telling me they’re sorry that it hurts, but it’s really deep. And my husband is standing outside now, because this is not something he should see, and when they ask him to come back, I’ve got an ice pack on my boob, and I’m really shaking. They give us business cards for two breast surgeons and tell us we should call them on Monday. Of course it’s Friday evening now. We walk out of the office stunned, a little numb, and I’m in serious pain.
We keep saying, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We won’t know anything for sure until we get the results,” but it was just so obvious from the way they were talking that it wasn’t going to be good news. I was shocked. Floored actually. I mean, I was forty-one and had no risk factors. My grandmother had died of breast cancer at seventy-six, but every doctor told me that didn’t count. My mother was fine, and I was forty-one! I didn’t smoke, I had breast-fed my kids, I wasn’t overweight, I ate well, I exercised. Sure, I was a chocoholic and probably drank too much Diet Coke, but breast cancer? No way!
One of my friends knew I was having a mammogram and got nervous when I didn’t call her back after a few hours. She assumed the worst and called her neighbor, who happened to be an excellent oncologist. She told my friend I should call her in the morning. She turned out to be a lifesaver — literally.
So now it’s Friday evening, and we’re pretty sure I have breast cancer. The nurse and radiologist just looked so severe and serious it was hard to imagine it was going to be good news. We don’t say anything to our teenage kids, because we don’t know what to say, and we try to figure out what comes next. Who do we know? How do we find the right surgeon? What do we do first? I call the oncologist the next day and tell her what happened. She tells me it sounds like I’m not going to get good news, but this is a treatable disease and you have to take one step at a time.
This becomes a recurring theme. You will hear this over and over: Take one day at a time. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Try to focus on the present. It’s great advice, but certainly in those first few days and weeks, absolutely impossible to follow. You will learn how. You will find that as things go on, it’s easier to do. Not every day — but some days.
TOP 5 TIPS FOR WHEN YOU ARE FIRST DIAGNOSED
- Don’t panic. Well, you can panic a little, but not so much that you can’t function.
- Rally the troops. Think of anyone you know who might be able to help you navigate the next steps.
- Breathe. This is just the beginning. You don’t know much yet. Next come the tests and more tests. You can do this.
- Stay away from the Internet. This is not the time to start researching everything that’s ever been posted about breast cancer and all the statistics. The statistics are scary, and they don’t apply to you yet. You don’t know anything yet. Actually, this is good advice for the whole of your treatment: Stay away from random chat boards on the subject. They can freak you out unnecessarily.
- Don’t panic. Yup, worth saying again.
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