One hot summer night, after a quick run, I stepped into the shower. I can’t remember exactly how I noticed the lump, but when I did, my heart started racing. It was small and hard, and felt fixed, about the size of a pea.
I immediately touched the other breast, searching for a matching lump on the other side. I have always been thin and petite, and I was training for a half marathon, balancing a job, and studying for my master’s degree, so I thought the lump might be one of my ribs, newly exposed from stress and exercise.
But I couldn’t find one on the other side.
That night I lay awake staring at the ceiling, thinking myself in circles about what the lump could be. Around 2 in the morning, I opened my laptop and turned to my trusty friend Google. Breast cancer lumps were mobile, sources said–mine seemed fixed, so that was good. Lumps are common in young women, too–benign fibrous changes and cysts that go away on their own. And the odds of a breast cancer diagnosis before age 30 are virtually nonexistent. Satisfied, I drifted off to sleep. Nevertheless, I thought as I closed my eyes, better see a doctor just to be sure.
A few weeks later, I went into my appointment with a gynecologist. I was in a new city, so it was a doctor I’d never seen before. I told her about my lump; she felt it and said, laughing, “Don’t worry, it’s just a cyst. We see it all the time in people your age. It should go away on its own in a few months.”
I had no reason not to believe her.
For four months, I didn’t give my lump another thought. I was in the best shape of my life, and set a personal record in the half marathon I ran that November. I was doing great in school and feeling fantastic.
At the end of December, I went home to see my parents for the holidays. Sitting with my mom in the kitchen, I suddenly felt compelled to tell her about the lump – which, all these months later, was still present. She made an appointment with my normal gynecologist for later that week.
“Are you nervous?” my mom asked as we walked into the waiting room.
“No,” I said, truthfully. A doctor had already told me it was a cyst. I figured the worst thing I might endure that day was a needle prick to drain the thing. Besides, we were heading to Costa Rica on December 23 for Christmas in the tropics, and my head was filled with thoughts of the beach and Spanish and fruity cocktails.
If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that it wasn’t a cyst.
“You should get an ultrasound,” the gynecologist said. “It might be cancerous.”
“We need to do a biopsy,” the radiologist said. “It might be cancerous.”
“But I’m going to Costa Rica,” I protested meekly.
We still went to Costa Rica. I had a bruise on my chest the size of a handprint from the biopsy. I could barely eat, waiting to hear the news from the doctor’s office. The four months I spent doing nothing about my lump haunted me. A worst-case-scenarist to my core, I was preparing myself to hear that I was terminal, that it had spread to my brain and I had weeks to live.
So when the call came that it was indeed cancerous, but didn’t seem to have spread to my lymph nodes, I felt, oddly, relieved. I wasn’t going to die. At least, not yet.
I found out I had stage I triple positive breast cancer at the age of 25. Here’s what happened next.
Cancer was an inconvenience, but it didn’t stop me from doing a thing I wanted to do. In fact, I lived more fully and more completely for those six months as a result of my diagnosis. Like most twenty-somethings, I felt invincible. I had no reason to think I could be sick. But now I know, deep in my core, so deeply, so completely, that it has changed everything for me: My time is limited.
I’m not interested in clichés or shibboleths about seizing the day or chasing your dreams. You already know that stuff. All I can tell you is that no matter how untouchable you feel, you aren’t. And that shouldn’t scare you. Rather, it should make you realize how incredibly beautiful it is to be alive.
- small, hard, fixed, pea-sized lump in breast