When I go to the doctor, I often hear terms I don’t always know exactly what they mean. Some of them sound scary, but then I find out they really aren’t as scary as they initially sounded. Since October of 2014, I’ve heard the following words tossed around by those inside and outside of the medical profession. ***Be advised many of these terms are used incorrectly outside of the professional medical realm especially when people are trying to sell you something.
One of the first scary words I heard was lump. When you have a lump in your breast, it is frightening because we automatically assume we have cancer. Even though in my case it turned out to be true, in many cases it isn’t cancerous at all. A lump is simply a compact mass of a substance, especially one without a definite or regular shape. In the beginning, my doctor thought the lump was a fibroid, a cyst, or even a calcium deposit site. Having a lump doesn’t automatically mean you have cancer though, but it is a HUGE red flag that should prompt you to go to your doctor and get it checked out. No one can touch it and know if it is or if it isn’t cancer and trust me when I tell you that time is NOT your friend when you have a type of cancer like mine that was so fast growing that a tiny BB sized lump turned into a mass larger than a golf ball in a matter of weeks!
Scary word number two was cyst. It sounds really bad and it can be, but it usually isn’t that big of a deal. In the body, a cyst is a membranous sac or cavity of abnormal character containing fluid. A scary cyst is a cancerous one or one that becomes infected forming an abscess. If the abscess were to rupture inside your body, it could make you sick or even kill you. But many of us have cysts that aren’t really that awful. I had several in my breasts. They looked like smooth, black, elongated ovals. As I was getting my ultrasound, no one seemed worried about them at all. They acted as though having these cysts was pretty normal. Some women get cysts in their breasts before their periods and some get them before going into menopause. I couldn’t feel any of my cysts, but some women are able to feel theirs. Just like lumps if you can feel them, please make an appointment to see your doctor. Cancer isn’t worth the risk.
My doctor originally thought I might have fibroids. This didn’t sound like a very good word to me, but a fibroid is a benign tumor of muscular and fibrous tissues. Fibroadenoma, another scary word, usually happens to women under 40 and is an excessive growth of the glands and connective tissue in the breasts creating these round, firm, rubbery lumps in the breasts that can even be painful. Once again, if you feel this don’t assume it isn’t serious. Get it checked out right away, but know if it turns out to be fibroids it isn’t cancer but it could be a warning sign and you’ll need to keep a closer watch.
As I listened to three different doctors as they examined me in those very early days, I heard two words that made my heart beat way too fast. Those words were mass and tumor. By definition a mass is a coherent, typically large body of matter with no definite shape. And a tumor is a swelling of a part of the body, generally without inflammation, caused by an abnormal growth of tissue, whether benign or malignant. There on the screen in front of me during my ultrasound was this grey, fibrous large body of matter with no definite shape. I most definitely had a mass, but was it a tumor? Pathology would prove that yes, it was because I had abnormal growth of tissue that was extremely fast growing and cancerous. In other words, the tumor was malignant – the scariest word of all!
All these words would come back a year later at my one year post diagnosis exam except this time my doctor was talking about my ovaries and uterus instead of my breasts. A large cyst was found on my left ovary. This was the same side my malignant tumors had been found on my breast. I couldn’t but fear this cyst would turn out to be a cancerous tumor too. I also had a mass in my uterus. Once again, I had to have an ultrasound and a biopsy. But this time, it was different. The cyst was just a cyst. The mass a benign (non cancerous) fibroid.
So if all my tests results came back “not scary”, why did I have a hysterectomy? I’ve been asked that question several times and the answer is as simple as it is complex. I had genetic testing done once it was determined I had breast cancer. My family has lost many to cancer, more than most family trees. I tested positive for two genetic mutations. One of those genes is one of the “cancer genes”, BRAC2. Breast cancer increases my risk of developing ovarian cancer, but this gene adds a double whammy to that! Ovarian cancer is nicknamed “the silent killer”. By the time most women find out they have it, it’s too late. I know exactly what it’s like to have to go home and tell my husband, my children, my family, and my friends I have cancer. I’ve done it. I pray I’ll never have to do it again! There are ways to increase my odds of staying cancer free. To know I had just finished six months of chemo and was taking a hormone blocking chemo pill (Tamoxifen) and I was still “toxic” enough that cysts and masses were forming meant cancer was coming, and I might not be able to stop it if I took the wait and see or wait and try some “natural” remedies approach. A hysterectomy was the best choice for me and my personal situation.
I’ve learned throughout this journey that we are all different. My situation may not match up directly with anyone else’s and that’s okay. Science is discovering what we already should have known – people are different, fighting different strands of the same cancers, responding to treatments in individual ways. I know in my case, I’m finally feeling better for the first time in many, many months. If you’ve ever fought cancer, you know what a wonderful gift “feeling good” is.