For the past two weeks, I’ve debated writing this post. But after talking it over with Ryan the other day, I feel like I need to share a very personal experience because it’s about such an important topic. So here goes…
Over two months ago, I found a lump in my right breast that was about the size of a small pea. Since I had recently visited the doctor and had a breast exam, I dismissed the lump because I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling was actually something abnormal. A month later, I felt the lump again. This time, I noticed that it was tender to touch. Not able to ignore it any longer, I made an emergency appointment with my doctor and had another exam. One appointment with the OB/GYN, one trip to the radiologist to have an ultrasound, and one appointment with a breast surgeon later, I was told that I have two fibroadenomas (benign breast tumors). Because fibroadenomas are not uncommon among women my age, the surgeon recommended that we carefully monitor the lumps instead of doing a biopsy or removing them. I will return to the doctor in three months for another ultrasound to make sure the lumps haven’t grown or changed in shape. And for the foreseeable future, I will have to monitor the lumps for growth.
When I met with the surgeon two weeks ago, one of the first questions she asked me was, “How did you discover the lump?” When I told her I found it by conducting a self-exam, she replied “Good girl!” and told me to keep doing the self-exams. I likely received this praise and advice because according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, almost 70% of breast cancers are found through self-exams. However, what I find interesting is that there isn’t agreement among experts about recommending breast self- exams. According to the Mayo Clinic, “there is no good evidence that doing breast self exams will find breast cancer earlier than if you see your health care provider for exams and mammograms when recommended.” As a public health professional, I’m hugely in favor of using evidence to develop guidelines. However, in this case, I don’t care if the evidence is conclusive enough to warrant recommending breast self-exams. I will continue to do them, knowing that I could find something that may need medical attention in between yearly visits to my doctor. Having seen the havoc that breast cancer can reap firsthand, this girl isn’t taking any chances.
I am a very lucky woman. The lump that I discovered is not cancerous and will likely never become cancerous. And because I found it, my doctor will be able to monitor the lump and act early if there are signs of potentially dangerous changes. This provides both me and my doctor with the power to influence my health for the better (it also provides my mom and dad with the ability to sleep at night).
From this experience, the best advice I can give is to ask your doctor if doing breast self-exams is right for you (and if so, how to do them and when to do them). You truly never know if such a conversation could help save your life.