As I was laying on Venice Beach in my violet intimates allowing the sun to toast my cocoa brown skin, I took to Instagram to declare #selfcare as the #grind with a photographed picnic spread for one — daily journal, banana, roasted seaweed snack, alkaline water, leftover burrito from SAGE Vegan Bistro. While I publicly advertised a seemingly cool, calm, and relaxed afternoon, that was furthest from the truth. My frontal cortex was skipping atop the Pacific tides like the stones I used to skip along the Schuylkill on Kelly Drive.
Right there in broad daylight, I’m sitting in my underclothes, crying my face off, all the while still chewing the banana, because of course this is my rendition of emotional stress eating. Just imagine how sexy that did NOT look or feel. What prompted me to combust into a wailing mess was the idea of having to take time away from work to deal with another health situation, my own health at that. It was most bothersome because from there wasn't a specified length of time to handle my unconfirmed issue. I knew my body didn't feel right, and I had to do something about.
There was a lump in my left breast that was big enough for me to pinch between my fingers. It hurt, therefore I didn't jump to cancer conclusions, nor did I immediately take to Google to misdiagnose myself. My breast felt heavier than normal, and this type of pain was worse for me. It felt like someone smeared Vick's vapor rub on the underside of my skin and laid my titty on a rotisserie. Considering the hellish year I had combating my mother’s illness, being in and out of the hospital with her, I just didn’t see myself as having anything to complain about. I was in all sorts of fucked up places psychologically.
Finding time off can be a bit of a challenge when you're sandwiched in between "I want it and I got it". Nearly two weeks had passed since my Venice beach breakdown, and living became hard; my daily work out became a chore, sleeping turned brief meditative nights. It's a possibility that I may have burned more calories in my sleep from tossing and turning. What saved me was the untimely death of my great uncle booking a flight the next day to return to Philadelphia.
After grieving the death of my uncle, I called and made the appointment to see my primary care physician. I couldn’t afford to waste any more time seeing as how I put this exam off for months. I was able to be seen within a few days given the nature of my concern. Arriving at the office, I laid back on the table as she proceeded with a thorough breast exam, asking several questions about my nonexistent medical history, preventive care methods, and family history. No past surgeries, no birth control, no known family history of breast cancer.
She sat up and told me that while she does feel the large obstruction, it’s probably a harmless fibroadenoma, a benign breast tumor that is made up of both glandular tissue and stromal (connective) tissue. She continued to explain that although their cause is reportedly unknown, fibroadenomas are commonly found in women between the ages of 15 to 30, and can only be confirmed with imaging tests such as mammograms and ultrasounds. They aren’t cancerous, and I wasn’t dying. She couldn’t really talk too much more about it since she was doing the same thing I did (manual handy breast exam). So Dr. G ordered both a diagnostic mammogram for both breasts and an ultrasound for my left breast.
Within hours, I had appointments at the breast clinic for the following week. It was clear I just needed to show up and get my life together. I didn’t want to consider the worst or best case scenario as much as I wanted to get the testing over and done with to decide how I was going to live and feel moving forward.
The Breast Clinic
Walking into the breast clinic, the jarring stares made me feel every bit out of place. I couldn't help but notice I was the youngest woman there. I was called into the back by a woman who’s skin resembled the broth of french onion soup. I automatically felt a cool breeze on the back of my neck as I was ushered into the waiting area by a woman who looked like she could be my auntie. My heart began pounding; not because I was nervous, but because I didn’t know what to expect from a mammogram, even though I knew ultrasounds were harmless. I sat in the room staring at the machine while she checked my orders. Luckily, they opted to do the ultrasound first (and to only do the ultrasound). Word on the street is that mammograms should start in your 30's or 40's, clearly I'm too young.
I laid on the table, breasts exposed, pointing to the lump as requested. The technician then squeezed the freezing jelly onto my breast and proceeded to move the hand detector in circular motions while I looked up at the mid sized screen. Just as I knew it, I saw the huge black cavity among the grey-ish matter of breast tissue. She took photos of it’s various angles of it, measured it. It was hard for me to remain silent during this test, as I always want to get to know the temperament of the person examining me, but also I need answers.
How big is it? Was my first question. She confirmed, "about three point five centimeters".
Does it look normal? She replied, "nothing I would be too worried about. It looks like a fibroadenoma, and I will explain to you when it’s over". Which in laymens terms means shut your mouth, and let me do my job.
The next five minutes were spent in silence.
At least, until I saw a new collection of tissue on the upper part of my breast that wasn’t in my initial complaint to my PCP. Pardon me, what’s that there? Can you go back? She did, and while it wasn’t 3 centimeters, it was large enough to have it’s photo taken as well. "It’s a cyst." Now stumped, I return to silence while she finishes the exam. So many thoughts were running through my mind about what I was supposed to do now. She handed me a semi-warm towel to wipe myself clean of the clear gel and I commenced to assemble myself.
Plan Of Care
I sat there, waiting for what felt like an eternity for the pretty blonde doctor to come in and have a word with me. If a breast tumor grows past two centimeters, they always recommend removal. She gave me three options.
A- schedule a biopsy to confirm what they were already 99.99% sure of
B- schedule a consultation with the breast surgeon for a surgical lumpectomy
C- do nothing at all and monitor the growth of the tumor every six months with ultrasound imaging.
Uh… I’ll take option B for peace of mind, Doc! Of course I was not jumping to have surgery, but I was very uncomfortable, and just could not imagine traveling across the world housing the overgrown interloper any longer. Six month check-ups were just not in the forecast, therefore a biopsy was also out of the question. I knew I needed to take some time off to heal, but I also wanted to get back to my grind as quickly as possible. I did not sign up for a slew of doctors visits, or a series of tests and prolonged results. An ultrasound was as far as I willing to go, especially when they since the tumor exceeded grounds for excising.
The only experience that comes close to surgery was having my wisdom teeth extracted in 2014, and even then I declined anesthesia while they sliced my gums and sawed away at my jaw. While that may seem a bit grotesque, that's how much I'm willing to avoid being put to sleep.
I mean let’s face it, what’s endearing about being at the mercy of individuals that view a patient as a collection of organs versus a multitalented, endearing young woman with great skin, bright eyes, and a promising future?
But there I was. Sitting on the edge of the bed contemplating surgery. I thought so many things, would my breasts be two different sizes? Will I suffer any side effects of the medication? There were so many thoughts going through my mind I tried my hardest to silence them.
Okay, cool. So remove the tumor and let my melanin do it’s job. Biopsy the tissue after you take it out of me and call me when you’ve got the results. That’s what I told the doctor, sticking to my guns.
The days leading up to my consultation with the breast surgeon were very painful. The same churning and cramping one could imagine a menstrual cramp is what it felt like in my left breast. And to make it all worse, the doctor scheduled the procedure ten days out, during the third day of my period. What kind of human would do such a thing?! Of course I asked if that would be a problem, and she said no, because she's performed this surgery many of times to women who were on their periods. I was demanding to see results!
The teeny little voice in the back of my head tried telling me that it would be a BIG problem, but I gave her a warm bottle and put her neurotic ass to bed.
I was already feeling a bit anxious about the pain and discomfort I was having, then the idea of having breast surgery gave me butterflies, and NOW I’m going to be dealing with period cramps. The idea that everything was happening at once, forced me to burst into laughter. I mean seriously I could not stop laughing. Because no matter how excruciating the pain, or how sensitive the topic, it was not cancer and I was not dying. I needed to take care of myself. So again I humbly submitted my will to the universe and took every second of my ten days to mentally prepare for my first surgery.
UNDER THE KNIFE
The procedure only took an hour, no complications. I woke up freezing, still and tense, my eyes sensitive to the harsh florescent lighting. They nipped and tucked everything smoothly. My pain was at a nine leading up to the surgery, so this new post-op pain didn’t feel foreign at all. I was just grateful that I didn’t end up in the ICU and my body didn’t go into septic shock! I was looking out of my own two eyes, with ten fingers and ten toes to move, two ears to hear, an arse in tact, and from what I could feel two tumor free voluptuous breasts. My gratitude was growing by the minute. The pharmacy delivered my medication to my bedside, and within two hours I was dressed en route back to my royal quarters.
The surgeon prescribed me Percocet for the pain, and it made me sick to my stomach! I have no idea how people use it leisurely, let alone abuse it. I only took the pain medication when the pain was up to fifteen, and even then it accelerated to a full grown twenty after popping a perc. The side effects of the medication were so strong, it actually intensified the post operative pain. I was nauseous, dizzy, the ground beneath me a carpet of rippling water. After taking the firs Perc, I thought I might have been experiencing side effects because of the anesthesia wearing off. But I came to my senses and realized it was okay for my body to reject poison, so I stopped the medication, and decided to tough it out.
Two days after the surgery, I unraveled the ace bandages, discarded the fluffy white dressing underneath, then nearly melted onto the bathroom floor. I thought my beloved left breast was forever deformed. But after a hot shower and a healthy slumber, my breast took its new normal shape. Full, though a tad smaller. Healthy. Wounded. Even though the Seristrips caused two quarter sized blisters on my skin, I had to keep them on until I got my stitches removed, which would take another fourteen days (not forever). Within that time, the swelling went down, the pain not so much.
But the pain never lasts forever.
That mindset helps me approach everything in life openly, even my lumpectomy. It’s in my nature to spot the gift in everything that life hands me. Knowing that there is nothing in my control to prevent this from happening again keeps me grounded. It's likely that I'll need another one, even despite taking very good care of myself, because that's what happens when you have fibrocystic breast disease.
The biggest lesson I learned about this chapter in my life is that, I still have room to grow, I still have love to learn by taking better care of myself. Sure, it’s easy to relish in the fact that I opt for pepperoncini over pepperoni on a gluten free plant based pizza, but maintaining your physiological health is more complex than that. And let’s face it, your physical health exceeds far beyond your stubborn flat pack.
As much as I want to blame my condition on myself I cannot do that. I can only become a better care taker of my temple, and encourage other women to do the same.
What rituals and routines do you practice to enhance your feminine self-care? I'd love to hear about your journey in the comments below.