What it’s Like to Find a Lump

It’s the oldest story in the world: in the shower I felt a lump in my left breast. I wasn’t…

By Kate Dilligan | 03/19/2019

It’s the oldest story in the world: in the shower I felt a lump in my left breast. I wasn’t doing a self-exam, I was thinking about the day’s upcoming meeting. I was mentally running through the key elements of my PowerPoint presentation when it hit me that there was something hard in my left breast.

I paused and checked the right side. Nothing.

Back to the left. Did I really feel what I thought I felt?

Yes, I did.

My first reaction was to be calm. I had people very close to me who were living with metastatic breast cancer. Both my parents had recently died, and I had been working full tilt, traveling like crazy back and forth from my home in San Diego to customers on the East Coast. I had been through a lot and had seen people close to me deal with a lot. It seemed to me to be almost self-indulgent to have a strong reaction of panic until I actually knew something was wrong.

It could be so many things, I thought to myself. It could be a cyst. It could be benign. Of course cancer was possible, but it was only one of the possibilities.

I got out of the shower and put it out of my mind. Yes, I would deal with it. But I had more pressing things to do.

I made an appointment with my OBGYN. I hadn’t been in a while. Between the emotional drain of caring for my parents during their illnesses, the breakneck pace of my job, and the absence of breast cancer in my family history, annual appointments had seemed unimportant. When I called at the end of September, I was told the first appointment I could get was in mid-November. Then I let the scheduler know that I had found a lump in my breast. Well, my doctor might not be available, but one of his colleagues was tomorrow.

I took an appointment the following week that accommodated my work schedule.

I told one person, a friend since college. I didn’t want to tell any of my grad school friends, since we knew someone living with metastatic breast cancer–ne of my best friends, in fact. So I certainly didn’t want to worry her or any of the others who might immediately think the worst. And I didn’t want to tell either of my siblings. Our mother had died in late 2014 and our father in January 2016. It was now early October 2016, and we were right on top of my father’s birthday, soon to be followed by my own. We had been through so much in such a short time that it seemed wisest to keep my own counsel and not worry everyone until there was something to worry about.

I was worried, but not terrified. My college friend mailed me a bracelet as a token of faith that I would be okay. I remember speaking with her just before my appointment and promising to call her back with any news.

The doctor was very kind and very professional. The first thing to try was inserting a needle into the mass to see if it would drain. If it did, then it was nothing too worrisome.

The needle was inserted. Nothing.

It was the end of the day, and the doctor asked me to wait a moment for her to check something. She came back in and invited me to follow her to a room were the sonogram machine used to image fetuses in utero was available. Using it, she saw the mass but said it was spherical instead of uneven as tumors often are. That was some comfort while I waited for the biopsy and mammogram.

In the meantime, it was my birthday weekend. I had friends come in from out of town and threw a big dinner party. One of my visiting friends was the one living with metastatic disease. I told her what was going on, that there was nothing definite yet, but there was now officially cause for concern.

There are two things that really have stuck with me from the days I got the biopsy and the mammogram the following week.

The first is the biopsy itself. I remember lying on my side with an arm up and a needle stuck into my breast. I remember it being very uncomfortable. And I remember the radiologist saying, “This is very suspicious,” over and over again. Those are not comforting words to hear. I asked her if that meant it was more than likely cancer, and she hedged, saying she would need the results back to make a firm diagnosis. But then she continued to say, “It’s very suspicious.” I told her I was going to assume for now that it was cancer but that it could be fixed.

The other thing I remember is calling my friend who was living with metastatic disease. I told her I thought it was likely cancer and walked her through what the radiologist had said. I also told her I was going to hope I had what I referred to as “cut-it-out cancer,” as in cancer that just requires surgery. I expressed that I was going to just get this fixed and that it would not be that big a deal.

She told me with a deep sigh, “Kate, I don’t think you are realizing what a big deal this is.”

She was right. I didn’t know. I didn’t know yet about joint pain or night sweats from chemo. I didn’t know how it felt to have a GI system completely out of whack. I didn’t know what it was like to continue working while going through treatment, with only a handful of people knowing I was sick.

I share this in the hopes that my story will make someone else’s journey easier. There is a lot more of this story to tell, and I will continue to tell it.

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