Am I Really That Dense? A Story of A Breast Cancer Scare (Part 1)
Editor’s Note: This is the first of three articles where Courtney Vallejo will share about her journey after finding a lump in her breast. Though she’s fine, she wanted to share it with you, here, to raise awareness about the realities of breast cancer and the experience of the doctor’s appointments. -
A few months back, my parish mom’s group had a guest speaker come and talk about Natural Family Planning (NFP), specifically, the Creighton model. As she was talking, she was pointing out the importance of women’s health.
This is something I seldom think of because, as I think, as long as I’m not in bed sick, I’m healthy and I’m more occupied with all the other things going on in my life. What dawned on me during the talk was that being healthy is actually a state of being that is more than just not “being sick.”
The speaker reminded us over and over again in the talk, that PMS is not normal. I WAS SHOCKED! What do you mean it’s not normal, I thought every woman had it! It’s the mood swings and crazy behavior that society has ridiculed us about for years and there was no way for women to avoid the symptoms that came with “that time of the month.”
After hearing that talk, I decided it was time to become healthy. Now please note, I don’t mean some crazy crash diet healthy, I mean figuring out why I can be so emotional, and if there was any way to lower my mood swings, to help keep the peace in both my own soul and in our home.
I’ve struggled with infertility for almost five years; if figuring out my cycle meant pregnancy was a possibility, that was an added bonus! My husband and I tried Creighton a few years back, but didn’t go very far with it because we felt more called to adoption. We now we have two beautiful children from the California fos-adopt program, who are conveniently starting to ask for more brothers and sisters. My husband and I began the Creighton model classes back in November and I was immediately encouraged by my Creighton teacher’s partnership in my discovery of health. She promoted women’s health as such an important part of living, especially since we had children who needed a healthy mother. Almost immediately, she sent me to a gynecologist to begin the blood work-ups and see if we could find out more about my health and infertility issues.
The doctor, being a specialist, is two hours from my house. I had only heard good things and so headed out to see her in December.
I should mention here that I hate going to the doctor. Let me be clear that I don’t hate doctors—I admire them for the humanitarian efforts—I just hate the idea of going to a doctor and having them tell me that I’m sick. I grew up with a mom who had something like 27 surgeries, breast cancer and later a kidney transplant. Suffice it to say I spent a holiday or two with the nice nurses at the local hospital.
My dislike for doctor’s visits come from watching her return home from her own doctor’s office with the next bit of bad news. I do realize that it was her body and her health issues and in no way the doctor’s fault. In my irrational moments, however, I still think that if they hadn’t told her the diagnosis, she wouldn’t have actually been sick.
I now assume that if I go in with a headache they’ll tell me I have a brain tumor or that my cough is tuberculosis. Please don’t think I’m mocking the health profession; I’m just showing you where my mind goes before doctor visits and why I find excuses not to go to them.
Back to my OB/GYN appointment. I was more than nervous going, but I was telling myself (during my two hour drive) that everything was fine, PMS is normal, and the doctor will tell me I just have to live with it.
Well, turns out she’s a wonderful, caring, thorough doctor who means business, and when she talks to you, she has this look, like she can see through your body and is already figuring out ways to fix problems you don’t know you have.
She started with hormone levels and questions like: Do you get cold feet, any unexpected weight loss etc. She thought perhaps I might have a thyroid imbalance. She asked about food allergies, and my headaches, and even my husband (I was quite impressed) and then she got to the actual “checking” part.
She asked if I did regular breast exams, and I had to admit I didn’t. I know my mother had breast cancer, I know I’m at an increased risk for it, but honestly I don’t know what I’m looking for and in my crazy brain, if I don’t feel it, it’s not there and I won’t be sick. So no, I don’t do breast exams. (I do know, deep down, that I should.)
She began the breast exam and then it happened, she stopped, kept her hand on my chest and asked, “Have you always had this lump?” Time froze. WHAT LUMP??? My brain started racing. What lump? I don’t have a lump! I don’t have cancer! See, this is why I don’t go to the doctor!
I tried to get myself together, admitting to her that I don’t do breast exams and I felt the spot she was touching, and there is was a big hard, weird shaped lump.
How had I missed this? What was it? What does this mean? I have two kids to raise and a husband? Really God???
Suddenly she’s writing me a prescription for a mammogram to look at the mass on my right breast. A mass? A mass! This is not happening. This can’t happen to me.
To top it off she checked my mom’s age when she had cancer; she was 38. She proceeds to tell me that premenopausal cancer is one of the worst.
REALLY, this is not something you tell the lady with the mass!
She reiterated that before we started any fertility medication and really in general, it was extremely important for me to get the mass looked at by a doctor. She sent me home with the mammogram prescription, a biopsy prescription, and a perscription for genetic testing for the cancer gene. She did in passing, however, mention that a side effect of thyroid dysfunction is lumpy breasts and that thyroid medication might just get rid of the mass. She reiterated, though, that I needed to see a breast specialist. To me, it seems like people with a thyroid problem don’t need a breast specialist, people with breast cancer need a specialist.
After the appointment, I got in the car and just sat there. I felt like there was some nasty disease right there in my breast, doing who-knows-what inside my body. With no way to get in there and rip it out, I felt paralyzed.
I didn’t know what to do or where to go or even how to get on the phone and call my husband. He was expecting me to call to tell him I was on my way home after the appointment. What would I say when he asked how it went? Would I tell him now or at home? What seemed like less of a big deal?Maybe if I downplayed it, I wouldn’t be so scared!
I decided to call him and of course my husband was worried and supportive, asked lots of questions and was just as confused as I was. We wondered how I had gone in for a routine initial visit to look for health advice and possibly infertility ideas and had had come out with a prescription for a mass. That night when we went to bed, I didn’t want him to touch me. I just felt so gross and dirty. He asked if I wanted him to touch it and I said I didn’t know. Finally after laying there for awhile, I let him touch me and he quickly confirmed, OH, I can see why you’re worried. It was quick and to the point, and left us both wondering how we had missed that.