In May, I made an unsettling discovery. To be fair, it was actually my husband who found it — a hard, round lump about the size of a quarter just under the skin of my right breast, located on the inside of it near my sternum. I had just had a breast exam two weeks earlier performed by the nurse practitioner at my OB’s office when I had gone in for my first trimester appointment. The lump was not there then. This meant I was pregnant with a breast lump.
Pregnant With a Breast Lump
I was troubled by this mass that had seemingly shown up out of nowhere and called my OB’s office the next day. I reassured myself with the knowledge that the lump had not been there before I was pregnant, so it must be related to the regular hormonal changes in my body. I made the mistake of going online to try to diagnose myself in advance of seeing the doctor. Though the description of cancerous lumps did not match up exactly with what I was observing on myself, each benign description came with a version of this disclaimer:
Check with a medical professional to rule out the possibility of cancer.
I found a page dedicated to breast cancer in pregnant women and found out it was very rare.
Only 1 in 3,000 women will be pregnant with a breast lump.
That number actually seemed too high for reassurance, though. It was rare. But not impossible.
My doctor located the lump and sent me for a breast ultrasound. The radiologist assured me that day that he was “99 percent sure” it was nothing to worry about, but his faxed report to my doctor apparently was less convincing. My OB sent me to a general surgeon who reviewed my film, gave me a breast exam and came to the same conclusion that the radiologist had, with one caveat.
“I want a follow-up ultrasound in three months, to see if this thing grows,” he said.
Summer came and went. We went on a two-week vacation. We all contracted lice. We went back-to-school shopping. My belly continued to swell with the rising heat of a Florida summer. Every night, when I lay flat in my bed, I’d reach for the spot of the lump and press gently against it. Every night it was still there. Every night I was still pregnant with a breast lump.
I received a call about a week before my follow-up ultrasound which took place in early September to come in and have it done. The ultrasound tech talked to me about the baby and seemed much more interested in keeping me distracted than she had at our first meeting. I sat alone in a bright hallway, waiting for the radiologist to call me back and tell me that nothing had changed in three months and that I still had nothing to worry about. The ultrasound tech came out instead, and told me to follow up with my doctor in a few days.
“But… am I okay?” I asked her, tears filling my eyes in record time.
She didn’t say “yes.” She just said that if there was something majorly disturbing, the radiologist would have taken the time to talk to me.
“Follow up with your doctor in a few days,” she repeated.
A few days later, the medical assistant from my OB called me and told me that me being pregnant with a breast lump had grown in the three months and that the radiologist was ordering a biopsy. Normally a mammogram would be the next step, but since I was pregnant with a breast lump, they were skipping straight to the needle. She encouraged me to call the general surgeon to get the ball rolling. I hung up, told my husband (who was surprised at the news) and I cried as I washed dishes. From the window in my kitchen, I could see my oldest and youngest children standing next to each other at a table full of Legos on our screened in patio — passing blocks back and forth to each other without a word, bonding over the simple act of connection.
For the first time since the small lump in my breast was discovered, I felt fear wash over me. What was going to happen to me? What would happen to my kids if something bad happened to me? What would happen to my unborn child?
By the day of the biopsy, I thought I had regained my composure. I had learned that my husband could not come into the biopsy room with me so I decided it made more sense for him to just stay home with our toddler, especially since it was her naptime. My neighbor offered to drive me there and back. I followed the nurse into the room where I changed into a hospital cape-like thing and followed her into a room where she helped me fill out my paperwork. She asked me if I wanted assistance regarding a living will before the procedure. I asked her if she thought I needed such a thing. She smiled and said that she very much doubted it, but that they have to ask.
|What a typical fibroadenoma looks like on an ultrasound screen|
In the biopsy room, the nurse and ultrasound technician helped me onto the gurney, my belly protruding out of the gown I had been provided. The doctor came in and walked me through the procedure before she put on her white gloves and medical goggles. I wasn’t going to feel a thing. I would be awake for the whole process. I could watch the ultrasound screen if I wanted. I would hear two loud clicks each time the tool entered my breast. The tool would enter my breast two or three times total. I would be free to leave after 5 minutes of held pressure after the procedure.
The nurse squeezed my hand as the first needle, the one with the numbing medication inside it, broke the skin just north of my lump. I fought to keep it together, I really did. But as my breast went numb, the tears started to gush.
I cried because I felt helpless. I cried because of the unknown. I cried because even though two babies have come out of my body, this particular procedure felt like a defilement of my sexuality and womanhood. I cried because I knew that the very things that had nurtured two of my little girls, and were preparing to do the same for a third, could actually kill me. I cried because I knew all too well that being a mother, or pregnant, or healthy in every other way could not protect me from the second leading cause of death by cancer in women in the U.S. I cried because being pregnant with a breast lump was taking over my life.
I could hear the loud clicking, and see the black mass and undefined lines on the ultrasound screen through my tears, but I wasn’t fully there. To be able to not completely break down, I had to remove myself from my body, and the present, for a few minutes.
Soon the ultrasound tech was holding a large piece of gauze on the area of incision in my breast, and the doctor was telling me a story about her son who she recently sent to college (who had never had a girlfriend ever, but found one three days after she left him at his dorm room). Feeling started to return to my breast. The three women in the room helped me up and off the gurney, and as I resnapped my bra into place, I tucked in an ice pack. I was told to follow up with the general surgeon in a few days for my results.
The doctor grabbed my hand with both of hers and told me that she believed what she saw on the screen was nothing more than a benign mass, but that we would have the answers for sure in a few days. I could tell she had told many other women the opposite news in the past, and I was suddenly incredibly overwhelmed at her directness when every other doctor had been unwilling to discuss any possibilities with me without medical evidence to back him or her up. My lip started to quiver again. I needed to get out of there.
I received my discharge instructions and walked out to meet up with my ride home. She could see I had been crying and reassured me, emptily, that everything was going to be okay. I had some work to finish up at home, but I parked myself and my bulge of a belly on the bed in my room instead for the rest of the day. Each of my kids took turns sitting beside me, talking about their day, showing me a piece of artwork from school or pointing to the ice pack still snugly held in my bra and asking me what happened. I told them I had a bump inside my breast that the doctor looked at with a needle so it was sore. The girls squirmed a little bit. My son nodded, but looked really confused. I assured each of them that I felt okay and was going to be fine.
I didn’t feel okay and I didn’t know if I was going to be fine. But they didn’t need the burden of that knowledge. I wondered how I would tell them if I got the call that something was indeed very wrong, signified by the coin-sized lump sitting just underneath that frigid ice pack. I started to panic. What would happen to my kids??
Then I thought back on something a friend of mine told me once, and actually blogged about here, when she was diagnosed with cancer at 28 weeks pregnant. When she starts to get overwhelmed, she simply tells herself “Nothing horrible is happening at this very moment” and it brings her peace to live in the moment. So I took a deep breath and said that to myself, a few times, and switched my focus to the everyday things my kids were doing around me. Being pregnant with a breast lump was not going to slow me down.
My seven-year-old son was playing Minecraft, eager to tell me about the worlds he was building since I was a captive audience.
My six-year-old and five-year-old daughters were playing dress up with my husband’s hat drawer, and making up songs based on how they looked.
My two-year-old was using my belly as a pillow and flipping through a book, pointing out the animals and objects she recognized.
It occurred to me that if I did indeed receive bad news that resulted in me having to spend even more afternoons on my bed in recovery mode, my kids gathered around me, that wouldn’t be the end of the world. Being pregnant with a breast lump did not stop my kids from growing up.
Yesterday, five days after my biopsy, I got official word from the general surgeon that being pregnant with a breast lump was nothing more than a benign fibroadenoma that did not need to be removed. He says he wants to take another look in six months, after my body has had time to stabilize from my pregnancy hormones, but doubts that there will be anything to see at that point. I could have kissed him through the phone (lucky for him he wasn’t telling me in person). I cheered when I hung up and then texted my mother. I followed up by texting a few other friends and then posting about the good news on Facebook. My husband started making jokes about his excitement over my extra amount of breast tissue. I hugged my kids tightly when they walked in from school and didn’t even nag them when they threw their book bags and shoes all over the house. I was no longer pregnant with a breast lump, and everything was back to normal.
I glanced at the date on my phone and realized that in just one day, Breast Cancer Awareness Month would kick off. I knew from my research that even though mine was a happy ending this time, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes. More than 40,000 women and 2,100 men will die from breast cancer in the U.S. this year. I also knew that because of the early screening and detection procedures now in place, deaths from breast cancer have been on a steady decline worldwide since 1990. I felt empowered by both my non-diagnosis and by the world of awareness and knowledge the entire five-month process had opened up for me.
It will take awhile to shed the feelings of betrayal and fear that my breasts have inspired in me over the past few months, but for now I can take solace in the fact that nothing bad is happening at this very moment.
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