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I saw a photograph of a woman who had had a mastectomy on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1993, and though she was a former model and it was beautifully shot with the words, “You Can’t Look Away Anymore,” emblazoned on it, I immediately looked away and thought to myself, “I better get on top of my self exams or I'll end up disfigured like her.” WTF, I actually thought that, and for those of you who don't know, today I'm living as a double mastectomy, no reconstruction, badass scarred up, flat chested woman who survived late stage 3 breast cancer!
Cut back to my 20s when I dutifully performed self exams, always having dense breasts, and familiarized myself with which lumps were there month after month and of no concern. I did this because I really didn’t want to get breast cancer, but looking back, maybe my body knew something I didn’t know because as a half-Asian woman with no family history of any cancer and an extremely healthy lifestyle, there was no reason to be fixated on doing this because I was not at any higher than average risk compared to the rest of the population.
This armchair psychic at work in my subconscious that somehow “knew” breast cancer was coming — or maybe the high octane estrogen flooding my system after getting my period too early at age 10 (which actually is a risk factor for breast cancer because of the extended hormonal exposure) — was subliminally driving me to hurry up and get married and have a child before age 30. Somewhere along the way I had read that giving birth before 30 reduced a lifetime risk of breast cancer, so it was always running in the background of my life goals to do list, demanding that my DNA be passed on before it was too late. When my first daughter was born in my late 20s, I remember patting myself on the back thinking “checked that box!” while my urban NYC peers were wondering why the hell I would torpedo my career by having a baby so early on my climb up the corporate ladder. In retrospect, I'm deeply thankful because breast cancer ended up taking my ovaries and uterus, so I would have been childless had I waited.
The day my milk came in was the first day that I felt what would one day become my cancerous lump. I thought it was mastitis because I was diligently reading all the new mom books on bringing baby home, so I called my obstetrician’s office and they prescribed antibiotics over the phone for my "clogged and inflamed milk duct." I took the full course, the burning pain in the lump went away, but that breast always felt different. When I nursed my daughter on that side and drained it completely, there was a hollowed out, faintly tingly feeling that always registered as, “yes, that must be the plugged duct finally relieved of pressure” but it was in fact cancer...growing, mutating, and silently spreading.
I breastfed my first daughter for more than a year, and was smugly proud to have checked a second box off for the reduction of breast cancer risk factors. I was not going to be a statistic. I miscarried a baby and experienced the rapid breast changes of pregnancy with the devastating effects of it abruptly ending without full maturation of the milk ducts. That intense mammary cell division that was tragically truncated by the loss of a baby may have also contributed to my risk factor for later developing an aggressive subtype of breast cancer...dividing cells running amok. I went on to have a second daughter, and it was when my boobs started to deflate from nursing a second time around that I suddenly became aware of a smooth, round moveable lump at 12 o’clock in my right breast…exactly where my “mastitis” had blown up four years earlier.
I vividly remember standing in the shower doing my monthly check and landing on it…and knowing it did not belong. All the years of unconscious preparation and planning for that moment did not result in me running to a doctor to have it checked. No, instead, the dutiful perfectionist in me thought waiting until my annual appointment three months later was the prudent thing to do because it HAD to be NOTHING, and I didn’t want to be that annoying patient pointing out a benign lump.
Looking back, that was the critical mistake I made because of trying to be “perfect,” because in three months it went from a pea to a marble and spread further into the lymph nodes under my arm. It is the mistake I don’t want any of you to make because if your gut tells you to get it checked, don’t wait. Become the expert of your own body. Know which lumps belong and which are new. Be the proactive (it's not annoying!) patient who calls and asks for it to get checked. Find trusted health care providers to partner with. Get an ultrasound if you are under the age where mammograms are useful. In short, do monthly self exams because in my case, if I had waited for my first mammogram and had not found it myself, I would be dead.
So #FeelOnTheFirst isn’t just a funny ha ha way to talk about boobs. It’s a way to remind you that you have the power to potentially save your own life. I actually can pat myself on the back about this! And in gratitude for the 12 years of survivorship I have been granted as of this October 2018, I want to make sure other women have the information and encouragement they need to be their own hero. Be loud, be unapologetic, and be responsible for the body that carries you through life...and on to your next grand adventure!