So at the ripe old age of 25 years, I have been diagnosed with breast cancer... The immediate questions and comments such as "Oh my God!", "Are you serious?" and "I'm so sorry..." are without fail always followed by the most pertinent question "How did you find out?".
My theory is that people want to learn about my 'discovery' first because the fact that someone as young as I am has had this awful news, means it could potentially happen to them too. Without intending to we instinctively fear for our own safety when hearing real life horror stories - and that is perfectly reasonable. We need to feel unease when we hear tales of tragic, sad and frightening life experiences of others because this makes us appreciate our own lives. Fortunately until something really shakes us up on a personal level this fear usually remains at a level of 'Thank God that's not me!'.
In any case, I believe that it is important not to be afraid of the bad turns we can unexpectedly find ourselves taking in life. These hopefully take us on unexpected routes to better times or give us new found strength. Harsh but necessary lessons in life.
So how did I find out I had cancer? The discovery? From the start... Here we go...
For around a year I was very tired. I began to believe that this was the lazy new me who did not want to go out and meet with friends or even talk to them on the phone. I thought that perhaps I was jaded with the same old activities in my life or that I was just being boring because of stressful events I'd encountered in recent times.
My feelings of lethargy increased so gradually that I generally did not notice the change in my lifestyle. Perhaps I was calming down in my ripe old age of 24/25? Maybe I was tired and stressed from work? Maybe getting used to driving everywhere had left me unfit and unable to hack much activity? Days of working from early in the morning straight through my lunch breaks and well after the office closed had become a distant memory.
I would browse through one or two shops on Oxford Street and want to go home, sit through meals with friends wanting to take a nap through my main course all the while recalling the times I could walk the length of Oxford Street and each department stores ten times over, cook for large groups of friends then go out all night until morning and last out chatting with friends until well past sunrise. I blamed myself for letting go of my regular gym visits and not dancing as much anymore believing that my fitness had gone down because of this.
Toward the end of 2011, I had begun to realise something must be wrong. I often ignored phone calls as I couldn't muster enough spirit to fake cheerfulness and had no energy to make conversation. I would often sit aching and feeling low from my lack of energy and occasionally I would get a numb feeling in my hands.
The more dramatic this became, the more frequently I would complain about my symptoms to my mum. "This must be happening because I don't eat as healthily anymore!" or because "I don't work out so much!". Sometimes I had such terrible numbness in my hands and arms that I would be on the verge of tears as I'd ask her "Is this all in my head?". Even my bones and joints ached terribly.
One evening I began to feel the numbness in my feet. When I went to bed the feeling was there in my lower back ever so slightly. I definitely had to get someone to listen to me. Even though my 'symptoms' were so generic they were enough to drag me down - and that is not like me!
I generally made every effort to avoid visits to my GP surgery because I was not used to having a male GP and to top things he was Turkish Cypriot (like me) which would only increase my discomfort, leaving me feeling shy whenever I had to see him. However at this point I had decided that enough was enough. This was December 2011 and I wanted to enter 2012 on track to regaining my old energetic self.
I am very grateful that my doctor took my symptoms seriously and sent me for blood tests. He thought that perhaps I had diabetes or a vitamin deficiency. I crossed my fingers, hoping it was not diabetes (I cannot bear the thought of cutting any food out of my life!) and hoping it would be something I could easily fix. Ideal solutions being some sunshine on a good holiday!
Two days after the blood test I received a call from my GP whilst at work, asking me to attend an appointment the next day. Cue worried feelings about having diabetes and trying to calm my increasing paranoia. Luckily this was during the week before christmas and I was finishing work early most days so I was able to leave for my appointment with no feelings of guilt.
My appointment panned out quite well. I did not have diabetes (so sugar food disasters were averted) but my GP told me he was very concerned about my vitamin d levels. This made me happy. No diabetes! Excellent! All the worrying was unnecessary and I could carry on eating as I like! However, the doctor stopped me from getting too excited by telling me he was still quite concerned as my vitamin d levels were much lower than the usual 'low levels'. He explained that 'normal' levels should be around 70 where mine was just under 10. This was what was giving me the aches, pains and exhaustion.
Still, I had an answer. Something I could work on and improve with a plan. Go and sunbathe, put an order through for magic vitamin d tablets. Get my old energy back. Go shopping again without suffering the consequences of a few hours of activity. Have full conversations with friends. All good! Tablets equalled solutions.
As I researched my plan of action I was a little bit confused.... Why were my vitamin d levels so low? I did not avoid the sun. Okay, I would not walk around in short skirts and small tops like I did in my teens but... still... Which had come first the vitamin d deficiency - making me stay in from feeling too tired - and therefore not getting enough sun? Or not going out in the sun enough and therefore feeling fatigued? Why hadn't this happened to me before 2007 when I hadn't gone on holiday for ten years and was as pale as snow!
Well, my google searches for information on vitamin d deficiencies brought up, eggs and sunshine as top sources of goodness.The last few years I had been in the sun several times each year. Summers in Cyprus, Italy and the USA, spring trips walking around Budapest and Vienna under the sun. In fact I cooking myself with baby oil to the point of getting sunstroke in 45 degrees plus when in Cyprus! How else was I lacking in collecting myself sunny vitamin points?
There were (I guess fortunately) a few worrying articles that I allowed myself to skim over which linked vitamin d deficiencies to aggressive forms of cancer. I did not let myself dwell on these for too long as there plenty of crazy articles on the web which would have you believe that a broken nail is potentially down to cancer!
The next day was Christmas and whilst I tried to get to sleep laying on my side, I felt an achy feeling in my left breast. It felt as though something was taking up room within and stretching my skin, weighing me down. As I turned to sleep on my right hand side I moved to hold down and support the painful area of my breast and I felt a large lump. I immediately pulled my hand away. It was scary. Did I imagine it? I sat up in my bed and slowly brought my hand back to check. It wasn't really detectable now I had sat up. I told myself that it must be a hormone related lump that leave at some point in the monthly cycle.
I laid back down on my side and put my hand back to check and yes... It was still there. It felt firm and about the width of my two fingers placed together. I tried to sleep but the articles I had read from the night before flashed through my mind. I told myself that if I didn't touch it again and it would go away in a week or so.
The next morning when I got up the courage to check, there it was there, real as day. I could only really detect it when I lay on one side. I didn't say anything at first but I messaged my sister who's studying molecular medicine at university and is therefore far more practical/sensible than I am. "I found a lump, it's given me the heeby jeebies!" I joked. She told me to wait until my period had been and gone as it was probably just a monthly thing. I knew she was probably right and I didn't want to panic through the Christmas period when no doctors appointments could be had. Yet I still felt frightened and would shuddered thinking about the lump so I decided to get someone else to check it and see if I was exaggerating the issue.
The moment my mum touched it her face dropped a little. She didn't say anything much, but her reaction gave me even more heeby jeebies. Yep that's right. I was walking around the house pointing at my breasts saying "Heeeeby jeeeeebie!" and frequently! That weekend I decided that as soon as the bank holiday was over I would get some peace of mind and have it checked out before New Year's Eve. So long as I could get a female doctor to check me.
My GPs were a nightmare to get appointments with. You had to call at 8am and keep calling, a million times, no less to get an answer. Then you would be given an appointment for 2 days later. If you called later than 8.30am you could only get an appointment for 2-3 weeks later.
This being the week between Christmas and New Years we were coming into work later than usual so I could get on the train to work after 8am giving me the chance to try to call for an appointment, a chance I would not ordinarily have. However, I could not get through and by the time I got into work at 9.30am and tried to try to call again, I was too late to get an appointment for two days time. They asked me to try again at 8am the next day or to take an appointment for the end of January. I asked what I was supposed to do about the lump in my breast and they were frustrated with me "As I just said, you can call at 8am tomorrow morning for an appointment next week".
I resigned myself to the delay in being seen but thankfully my sister is much pushier than me when it comes to medical things. She gave them a call whilst I carried on with my work and messaged me to say that the doctor would call me himself to decide whether I was worth seeing that day. He decided I was.
I left work early - as did everyone and while the doctor was not my regular doctor - he was a man. However, by that point I was quite unnerved and had riled myself up with worry so I just wanted to have it checked and be over and done with it.
He asked me some general questions about my background, no breast cancer in the family, twenty five years old, he seemed bored with the facts. Obviously this was benign. He didn't put me at ease but in any case I at least came to realise it was highly unlikely to be anything serious. Whilst checking for the lump he kept saying "Hmm strange... that's strange!" and he told me that this would be totally benign. I would still be referred for screening at a breast clinic two weeks waiting time as standard. Upon my exclaiming "Oh good I was very worried about this" he responded "Yes women do worry about these things". Just like that. Silly man that he was.
The next day I went into work feeling uneasy. Why did he keep saying it felt strange? Why do I have to wait two weeks? I was disappointed that going into the New Year and I was worrying instead of making resolutions. My colleague was also very worried for me when I told I was upset about it and convinced me to go to the nearest hospital and see if they could see me straight away. I wasn't convinced they would but I also wanted to see if anyone could put me at ease as it was New Year's Eve. Off I went to hospital with said colleague.
This hospital visit was in my eyes a success. The female doctor who checked me over looked like a melting plastic character from Little Britain (don't ask why but I liked this!) and she was happy to announce as soon as she felt it that it was a 'Fibroadenoma', "check it out online if you like completely non cancerous benign tumour that young women often get'' she told me. She suggested I go for my screening anyway as they might be able to remove it for me if it was making me uncomfortable. It was, I was in pain from my skin feeling tight. I was just happy to have someone so confident and to be able to wait for my appointment in two weeks without having a nervous breakdown!
In the time it took me to have my screening it was now detectable in any position I tried to feel it from and I had to take painkillers when I tried to sleep. I could also only sleep in certain positions. This didn't worry me too much because I had read that breast cancers do not usually hurt so as this did hurt it couldn't be cancer. I also had a few women tell me about the times they had the same thing around my age or when they had a cyst drained. I hoped I had a cyst instead of a Fibroadenoma as I didn't want a scar from an operation for something harmless but I also didn't want to leave it in when it was hurting me. My main worry until the screening day was just whether I should ask for an operation or not. I asked my mum to come with me to the screening so that someone would be there when I asked about having it removed - my feeling tired from lack of vitamin D had been affecting my concentration and I didn't want to forget anything that was said.
On the day of screening a third doctor saw me and checked me over again... He said he was happy to say that it was a Fibroadenoma quite common in women my age and that I would have an ultrasound as standard procedure and a fine needle to check it over. He asked me for background details as the other two doctors had done and asked if I'd had anything other than the painful lump. I told him about my numb hands/feet and tiredness and he laughed - saying that has nothing to do with my breasts. Frankly I started to hate visiting the doctors as so far I had clearly been wasting their time with my 'stupidity'.
So off I went to have my ultrasound - very nervous - because I hate needles but just wanting to get through it. I was shaking a little not because I thought it was anything serious but because I don't even like having my blood taken and to admit to an embarassing secret had only recently begun to have injections without my mum or someone to stand next to, amuse and distract me!
The radiographer found the lump on the machine immediately and within seconds declared "We're going to need a biopsy" I didn't realise that this was different to a 'fine needle' and I am glad that I didn't. It was thicker than a knitting needle and long with a hook on the end... I saw it briefly and then had to keep my eyes diverted to try not to loose my courage... I asked him if it looked okay on the scan - he told me he never likes to assume anything. They assured me I would be anaesthetised first. The nurse by my side was so nice and so was this doctor/surgeon/radiographer - I was too busy being scared to notice what he was! Before he put the 'biopsy' majig in my chest he demonstrated the sound it would make - like a stapler - so that I wouldn't be shocked. Each one he took he counted down how many I had left to take. 3 only each one left me shaken. Even my mum who is not squimish looked away (although I did demand she do that at this point because it feels daft showing your nakedness to your mum once your old enough to wash yourself!).
Once it was done and dusted, the shock of the size of the thing that took the biopsy, the bandaging, pressing and prodding from the inspections and the effect of the anaesthetic left me in a daze. I went home and realised only the next morning when I felt sick and couldn't move properly that I couldn't go into work. I felt sick and unable to move properly for three days. They told me the results would take 5 days from the lab but that as they only have the clinics on tuesdays I would need to wait two weeks.