IS IT CANCER?

I want to share the story of my diagnosis so that people understand the unique challenges young people are faced with when identifying cancer. Sadly, cancer can be more aggressive and fast-growing the younger you are, which is why early detection is key.

I have Triple Negative Breast Cancer, which is breast cancer in an aggressive form. It’s also Grade 3, meaning it’s fast-growing and unlike my normal cells. But it’s Stage 1, so it’s contained and has not yet spread. Generally, the earlier breast cancer is found, the better the chances of surviving it. Every day I thank myself and my doctors for getting that diagnosis as now we can fight it.

I found my lump when I was in the shower. I wasn’t looking for it, I was just washing myself when I felt a hard little pea-sized shape in my breast. I stopped and felt again. Still there. I got myself dressed and started Googling. Nine out of ten lumps in breasts are benign – phew, worry over.

And that was it. I carried on with life as usual. I went on holiday, I went to work, I went to parties and I was in no hurry to get that little lump checked out.

We think we’re invincible in our twenties. Cancer happens, but it happens to other people. Every day we see posters on the tube telling us to check ourselves, diagrams of what to look out for, and always the same message: if you find a lump, see your GP.

But when you’re twenty-five, a fitness enthusiast and have a kitchen full of health foods, you’re ticking all the right boxes. The reality is that you don’t think it would or could ever happen to you.

Here’s the thing – cancer isn’t like that. It’s indiscriminate. One in two of us will get cancer in our lifetime and what I’ve come to realise is that it’s more common in young people than I had thought. In one week, there were three girls my age diagnosed with breast cancer by my consultant.

After waiting it out, I eventually went to my GP. I had a jam-packed weekend ahead of me and my housemate was ill with a fever. When I felt a sore throat coming on, I took myself to the doctors and was prescribed antibiotics. I was already headed for the door, coat on, when I remembered the lump. ‘Actually- while I’m here, I wondered if you could take a look at something.’

The doctor thought it was a fibroadenoma (a benign breast lump commonly found in young women). I displayed no usual symptoms of breast cancer and ‘the odds are against it – you’re too young’.

I still don’t know why I cried, but I did. I asked her ‘how can you be sure?’ I’d heard of ultrasounds being used to look at breast lumps and that sounded pretty good to me – it would be the final confirmation. She could see I was upset so she said she’d put me out of my misery and she’d refer me on to a consultant for a second opinion.

Two weeks later, another examination and the same conclusion. I’m too young, it’s a fibroadenoma and it doesn’t have the characteristics of cancer. Because I was now being examined at the hospital, it was formal procedure that I’d have an ultrasound too.

By the time I had my ultrasound scan, a week after my second examination, I’d pretty much dismissed the idea of cancer. Even when they told me they needed to take two biopsies during the ultrasound, I was more concerned about the biopsy process than the results. I spent the next week frustrated that I was missing a pool party and that I couldn’t exercise because of the pain from the biopsy site. It hadn’t occurred to me that my life might change so drastically.

It was a chain of fortunate events that led to my diagnosis. I consider myself lucky and I’m now in the fantastic hands of the NHS and underway with treatment. Mammograms aren’t usually available for women below the age of 50 so we’re left to self-examine. Even then, how many of us actually check ourselves every month and do we really know what we’re looking for? I didn’t. At school, we’re taught about poetry and the life cycle of a flower, but I for one was never taught how to check whether I had cancer. I found a cancerous lump and I dismissed it. Meanwhile, in approximately one month, it had grown to 17mm, the size of a cherry.

I could easily have waited until my cancer was Stage 2, 3 or 4 to get checked. I could easily have been turned away by my doctor, who mentioned that she would normally have waited for me to come back three times before referring me. She did the right thing by acting immediately and I am incredibly grateful.

Since being diagnosed I’ve joined cancer support groups for people my age and sadly, I’ve come across too many people who are dealing with late diagnoses because of these challenges. This has to change. No one is too young for cancer.

If I leave you with one message it’s this:

  • Take a couple of minutes out of your day at least every month to check yourself.
  • If you notice anything that doesn’t look or feel right, see your GP.
  • Be persistent in pursuing a full examination.

For more information on identifying breast cancer, the following sites are pretty useful:

https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/breast-cancer/symptoms

worldwidebreastcancer.org

Please keep in mind that breast cancer is different in everyone. Breast cancer lumps are usually painless and attached. Mine moved around quite easily and didn’t seem to be attached – it was the ultrasound that confirmed that it was.

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