I eat right, exercise, breast fed my children, and buy organic when I can. I have never lived on a superfund site and I do not have cancer in my family line. The chance of me finding a lump in my breasts were I thought, slim to none.
On a quiet Sunday morning at the start of spring in New England, everything I believed about my life changed forever. My husband and our two children, ages 4 and 1, were downstairs in the kitchen making breakfast. I was upstairs enjoying a much-needed hot shower: this at-home-mom needed a little me time. Let them eat pancakes—I just needed some privacy.
As I let the water flow down my aching back, I started my usual self-breast exam. Why was I doing self breast exams so young, not yet 40, with no breast cancer history and two years from getting my first recommended mammogram? Because of Miss Provost.
Back in high school, Miss Provost was my gym teacher. And one day at my all-girl academy, I recall she walked into our locker room and looked at all of us in various stages of puberty. “You need to do breast self exams,” she said. “Here’s the placard with directions. Make sure you do them.” And she left the room.
I was 16 then. I was 38 now. Twenty-two years and hundreds of breast self exams later, I actually felt a lump.
What started as a long week of doctor’s exams, mammogram, and biopsy turned into a final moment of dread: a doctor’s voice on the other line saying “this is a breast cancer.” I’d tried all week to prepare myself for the worst, but here it was and I just crumbled. I can’t have breast cancer! I sobbed.
How do you have breast cancer?
In the days that followed my husband and I were sunk in the surrealism of life going on even as our world was collapsing. I remember doing laundry, thinking—I may be dying, but I still need clean underwear. How inane, but life kept moving whether I was with it or not. And I was without it. I was disconnected from my world—I was not supposed to get sick. I felt run over and powerless. I had cancer.
“What’s wrong?” my 4 year old asked.
“Um,” I stumbled. What do I say? With no time to think I dove in, “I am sick. I got sick and the doctor is helping me get better.” I kept it simple but honest; I was sick enough as it was, I wasn’t going to strain myself by pretending all was well.
It took five years and a double mastectomy, dose dense chemotherapy, radiation and 1,825 Tamoxifen pills, but I am alive and kicking. I feel I’ve been given a gift, a free pass, a get-out-of-the-funeral-parlor-free card, because I found my cancer thanks to a breast self exam that nobody was making me do. The mammogram they gave me after the biopsy of that lump revealed tread marks of my cancer making what I call its road trip around my breast and into my lymph nodes—the highway to the rest of me. If I hadn’t gotten treatment when I did then I would not be here now. Thank you Miss Provost.
I was two years away from the 40-year-old routine mammogram that the powers that be in this country suggest we women begin. I felt incredibly lucky that I was doing something pro-active because if I’d waited to 40, who knows what would have happened? Despite what you may hear, don’t underestimate the power of a breast self-exam.
- noticed a lump in her breast while doing a self-exam