By Melissa Golding
So I Found Lump…
At the beginning of February this year whilst lying on the bed watching a bit of telly after work, I found a lump. Not sure why I even checked, but I must have felt uncomfortable. I was rubbing along the bottom of my breast, close to my ribs, where the underwired bit goes on your bra. It was not a big lump, and to be honest I had to check a few times. Then began this ridiculous back and forth from one breast to the other to see if I could feel the same on the other side, I could not.
So, I left it a few days and did some googling and decided it must be hormonal, nothing to worry about. Except I did worry. In the back of my mind I remembered (well over 20 years ago) a nurse at the local surgery showing me with a prosthetic boob and how-to self-exam to understand what a sinister lump was like. I remembered her telling me it can feel like a small hard lump like a lemon pip. Mine felt like a lemon pip.
I plucked up the courage to tell my husband. He had a feel and said he really wasn’t sure and thought it was probably nothing. I told my two closest friends. One had a feel too but again I think she wasn’t sure either, it really was quite small! But she urged me to go the doctors, nonetheless.
It would have been my mum’s birthday on 11th February. It was the second birthday I was without her in person. I feel she’s always with me in spirit and knew she was guiding me to do the right thing and get it checked out. The next day I was at the GP’s surgery feeling a bit silly, like I was wasting her time. But after examining me she agreed there was lump. Under the NHS guidelines I was fast-tracked to see a consultant within two weeks.
My appointment with the consultant was ten days later and my husband accompanied me. I was nervous to see the consultant and actually felt uncomfortable. My friends will tell you that although I love going out partying, I’m very prim too! I don’t even wear a low-cut top! Here I was, naked from the waist up with a male consultant giving me a very quick prod. Once I was dressed, he casually said he thought I had nothing to worry about and I might just be a “bit lumpy”. As a precaution, he told me to go straight for a mammogram. That’s another whole load of embarrassment. Not quite standing in the right place and having your boobs squeezed so much you feel they are about to explode. But it was done and I felt sure I was all fine, the consultant has said so hadn’t he?
The next day driving home from work I took a call from the hospital. The secretary explained the consultant had looked at my mammogram and would like me to come back on Thursday at 9 am for further tests, another mammogram, an ultrasound and perhaps a biopsy. The second I hung up, I cried. It was all becoming too real.
Me being me decided to be very pragmatic about all of this. No point worrying, I need to approach this head-on. My mum had had cancer. She had spent six months in hospital and been through Chemo. I knew what could be in store for me and I was ready to take it on. Besides, I felt fine and if you had Cancer, wouldn’t you feel a bit unwell? And, I had no leaky boobs or other horrible symptoms. Life can’t be so cruel to not give you the one side-effect you actually wouldn’t mind getting – Sudden weight loss without starving yourself, surely?
I asked my nineteen-year-old son, Joe to take me to the hospital on the Thursday mainly because the parking there was so bad and I didn’t want to be late looking for a space. My husband was in the process of changing from a contractor to full-time at his work so didn’t want him taking unnecessary time-off. Typically, it started to snow and I ended up just legging it from the car whilst he looked for somewhere to park. I texted him the name of the department so he could meet me. Of course, this department which was small and intimate felt very different from the rest of the hospital was even carpeted but today it wasn’t empty like it was on Monday afternoon. It was packed and very soon my son was standing awkwardly in front of me as there were no seats left. I had been honest with my son when he had asked why I was going to the hospital – I had given a very quick explanation whilst digging into a kitchen cupboard, it was vague “found a tiny lump, just getting it checked”. But now, with him standing there in front of me all 6’ 2” but looking like my little boy again instead of the man he has become I started to realize what a bad idea this was. Luckily, I then got called and said I’d be back in 10 minutes (more like 50 though).
More prodding and standing incorrectly whilst my left boob was being squeezed to death. Then came the Ultrasound. I could hear clicking and so knew there was definitely a lump so casually asked, how big? 14mm – told you it was tiny! But then the ultrasound was going up under my arm and next thing I knew there were two biopsies happening, one of my boob and one on my lymph nodes! Oh my, now I’m panicked. To make things worse the radiographer said as I was leaving “we’ll have the results in a week, then we can make a plan” WTF?, “make a plan!”. Is this what she says to every patient? I left the room but a massive part of me wanted to go back and ask her what she meant. My plan was to never see her again!
As soon as I came out Joe stood and was opening the door to leave. I had to tell him to wait as I needed to make my next appointment. And of course, that’s when he asked me why. I could feel everyone woman sitting in that small room looking at me and waiting for my explanation too. I panicked and said I’d explain the in the car. And before I knew it we were in the car and I was feeling sore and without really thinking I just explained truthfully they had taken two biopsies. “One of the lumps in my breast and the other of my lymph node because it didn’t look right”. He immediately asked what did that mean and before thinking whilst looking straight ahead, I just blurted out “because they are checking for cancer”. Then I looked at him and tears were streaming down his face. I don’t often feel a failure as a mother but right then I did. It didn’t matter I tried to make light of it, said things like “I’m not going anywhere, there’s nothing wrong with me”
Coming home that day and for the next week I carefully dissected everything the radiographer had said to me, thought about the needles they used for the biopsies and googled every aspect of breast cancer. Me and Dr. Google had become firm friends, especially at 3 am lying wide awake and fearing the worst.
People will tell you not to worry. Another thing people will say is your mum didn’t have breast Cancer, did she? or it’s probably a cyst (my friend/aunt/colleague) had one of them. These, I suppose are all quite helpful in some ways but that doesn’t stop you worrying. That was one of the worst weeks so far in all of this. I tried to stop thinking about it, but it was there at the front of my mind in everything I did.
On the Saturday it was a close friend’s 50th and a group of us were booked at free-flowing brunch at a restaurant in central London. We had a great time. But whilst I was sitting there in kept thinking of a statistic that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. I love my friends so much and if it meant I could be the one and they wouldn’t, I could cope with that. I was strong enough to fight.
I’m an ordinary 48-year-old woman, married with teenage boys. There isn’t anything that dynamic about me. But I do think I’m strong. Not strong in a physical way but mentally I can cope with what’s thrown at me. Of course, we all have wobbles but I constantly strive to be the strong one, to stay on top. It’s probably growing up with just my mum and being an only child. You become resilient. That doesn’t mean I’m hard though, I probably cry every day and that’s on a good day!
Finally, the week had past and results day is here and what a rubbish day it was weather-wise. Torrential rain, like an omen. I had tried to keep my fears to myself. I just internalize all that’s spinning in my head. My close friends were aware and my confidants. I absolutely did not make a big deal of it to my older son who I had asked not tell my younger son. And my husband knew I was worried and I knew he was too – we’ve been together for 32 years, some things you don’t need to discuss you just know.
On the way to our appointment, I was very matter of fact. I told my husband I knew I definitely have a tumour, albeit small. So best case scenario it would be benign and there’d be nothing wrong with my lymph nodes and the worst would be cancer and it would have spread. Like I said I had not thought about anything else all week. Waiting to go in felt like torture.
The consultant seemed kinder than before and this time there were two nurses in the room with him. As we sat down, he asked of myself and my husband could switch seats, so I could look at his computer screen more easily. One of the nurses introduced herself as a specialist breast care nurse. Then he said the words you never want to hear “the biopsies have come back and I’m sorry to tell you, you have breast cancer. He talked about the grade, type and that it had spread to my lymph nodes. He showed me the mammogram on his screen and using his pen as a guide was circling an area for me to look at. Next there was talk of further scans, surgery, chemo. It felt like an outer body experience. Was this really happening to me. My husband sat with his hands to his face and I cried briefly. Whilst the consultant was talking to me about a lumpectomy and total lymph node clearance, I thought about two things. The first thing going through my mind was, see I told you there was a lump! Remembering how flippant he appeared at my first consultation. But right now, was not the time to feel smug about being right about something.
The next thing I thought about was something so ridiculous now I’m almost embarrassed to share. He asked me how I felt and all I wanted to know was how long would I be off work for. At which point I declared that now was my time to watch “Grey’s Anatomy”. Even babbled on about how I’d never seen it, there were over 10 seasons, I was saving it in case I ever broke my leg (I honestly was, I like to plan for every eventuality, though that would be a silver lining!) but instead of reacting more to my diagnosis I was just picturing myself on the sofa with the remote! Then came this bizarre conversation with my husband as he told me I probably wouldn’t like it and find it dated. All of this in front of the consultant and the nurses who looked a little stunned by our conversation! Probably some clever Psychologist will tell me it was my brains way of coping with devastating news and to a degree I think it worked if only for a few minutes.
We were then taken into the adjoining room and the cancer nurse was now telling me she was going to be my specialist nurse. That’s when I could really see how devastated my husband was, I’ve never seen him as upset as that. I was given lots of little booklets and my Cancer type and grade was written down. I was told to expect surgery in two weeks and then Chemo two weeks after that. First, I would need some additional scans to check the stage of my cancer. But we left hospital and our world was thrown into disarray despite the reassurances from the medical team that this was a very treatable, curable Cancer.
In the car on the way home started the never-ending stream of phone calls. I needed to tell my friends I had confided in. I tried to look at the positives, I’d caught it very early, the tumour was only 14mm, I was having a Lumpectomy not a Mastectomy. But I knew the news was just as devastating to them. When we pulled up on the drive, I knew I would need to tell my boys. I had briefly considered waiting to get the other scans out of the way but decided I wouldn’t be able to hide my emotions. Plus, I hated the thought of them not knowing and me whispering on the phone or closing doors to have a conversation. They both took it well. There were tears but I think I’d convinced them there really wasn’t anything to worry about too much. It was just that although I feel fine now the next six months would be very different.
More phone calls breaking the news to people. I did also send text messages and you know what I realized, there really isn’t a best way of telling people. A phone call is a massive shock and you end up repeating yourself and a text seems insensitive no matter how kindly you word it. Maybe text followed up with a call shortly afterwards is best option. Then everything is written down, they have time to read, re-read and digest. Also, everyone responds differently, some are outwardly upset especially those that you didn’t confide in from the start. Some can’t understand how you have remained calm by telling them. Questions like, do you think you are in shock? Has the news sunk in? plus an obsession with what stage you’re at (even though you don’t know as you haven’t been for the additional scans!).
So, I had breast cancer and I was going to get ahead of this! I had read even for a Lumpectomy it’s better to have a post-surgery bra and something you can do up easily on your own – front fastening. Well blow me down, who knew there’d be a rush on these bras! Literally every website I looked out were sold out in my size! I manged to find two in stock at the Sutton branch of Marks & Spencer. That then became my mission. I was gonna hunt them down!
As luck would have it my Bone Scan was booked at the Royal Marsden in Sutton. Two birds, one stone. To make the day complete my bestie accompanied me and as she was local to the hospital made me a delicious lunch too. The initial stage of a bone scan is very straight forward. You are injected with a radioactive dye and then sent on your merry way avoiding children and pregnant women for the next three hours until stage 2. We were able to able to hunt down the bras and even treated myself to some new trainers – mission completed.
At 3 pm we were back there and I was lying in front of a very big white sterile machine. I was able to keep my clothes on and all seemed very straight forward. My arms were placed in something that looked like a surgical sling but kept them by my side and my ankles were bound to a cushion sitting in between them. So far so good. My friend was even allowed in the room with me. I decided to keep calm and actually really did fall asleep. So, when the nurse woke me I thought it was over. But, instead, she asked my friend to leave the room and was asking me to pull my jeans and knickers down as there was a lot of “uptake” in my pelvis region. More scanning, more fear. I was then told to go to the toilet and I think an empty bladder worked as they stopped focussing on that region and went back to my chest area. Finally, it was over!
I had to wait another week for my CT scan and by then the country was in full fear of Corona Virus although the official lockdown wouldn’t begin until a week later. Another very dear friend offered to take me to the hospital. She turned up bearing gifts. She is one of the most thoughtful, kind people in the world. She had brought me my very own handmade face mask by enlisting the help of another friend who is an excellent seamstress. Off we went to the hospital, masked and gloved up with anti-bac gel just in case. I needed to drink a litre of water an hour or so before the scan. At the hospital it was all very straight forward. Another big white sterile machine but this time everyone was far more aware of distancing. The radiographer was a young guy who put a cannula in my hand. He explained during the scanning they would remotely release a dye into body from the machine attached to the cannula. He explained that it would feel like a warm sensation running through your body but also by the time it reached my pelvis I might feel a very warm sensation akin to wetting myself! I have a strong bladder, I literally never go to the loo when I’m out so decided this shouldn’t bother me too much even though it was very full at that stage! How very wrong I was! You honestly feel you have wet yourself. You cannot think of anything else at that stage apart from how will I get from this room back to car in this condition! So, my advice would be to take some spare underwear and clothing with you. Even though you won’t need it and it really is just a sensation at least you won’t be worrying like I was! The actual scan was much quicker than the bone scan and I was seeing the consultant the next day to plan surgery.
I had all my questions worked written down for the consultant, no more silly talk about Grey’s Anatomy. I wanted to know the ins and outs of surgery so I could do what I do best, plan. The waiting room was much quieter and now everyone was masked up. A young woman with her partner was called in before me. Off she went into one door and after 10 minutes or so she came out of the door adjacent to it. She was armed with all the same booklets I had. And I realized she had been given bad news too in the same way I had two weeks earlier.
My turn now and in we went, he was still shaking hands which I thought was very polite as there had been a whole thing on the news about people tapping feet together instead. Remembering to sit in the right seats this time I had my list of questions ready for him. But again there was a serious look on his face and he began by telling me the bone scan had come back clear (phew, that was the one I was worried about) but then he started about talking about the CT Scan. There are two nodules on my lungs that look suspicious and again we were looking at the screen and again he was using his pen in a circling motion. Everything was either black or white so I couldn’t really see any difference but that’s when he said: “I can assure you they are very different”. Still not understanding or perhaps not registering the news I went on to talk about surgery next week as planned asking what difference do the nodules make? I still have a breast tumour that needs to be removed. But that’s when he dropped the bomb, “there will be no surgery until we have fully investigated these nodules, if they are cancer there will be no surgery at all as then we can only treat not cure you”. Now I was feeling desperate, I wasn’t crying I remained strong but again asked why even if it was cancer wouldn’t they be able to operate to remove the nodules. He remained calm and said there would be a different treatment plan and then was when the penny dropped, I might have secondary breast cancer.
Both my husband and I left that room composed but the moment we turned in to the corridor we both broke down and for the first time was angry. I was angry at my consultant for the news, I was angry in his delivery of this news, I was angry this was happening to me. We got in the car but the nearer we got to home the more I knew I wasn’t ready to go in, we passed our house and continued driving to no-where in particular. I needed to regain my composure to remain calm when I spoke to my boys. We ended up driving to a small village. my husband had recorded the meeting on his phone with the consultant. Probably very unethical but I'm so glad we did. We played it through the car speakers and just sat in silence as now we were very clear he really did just say all that! The more it whirred in my head the more upset and angrier I felt.
The rest of that day was a bit of a blur. I spoke to Joe & Josh (my youngest) and close friends but was very upset. Of course, that night at 3 am I was awake and with my friend google reading all about secondary breast cancer, where it spreads and symptoms. But hey I didn’t have any symptoms for breast cancer apart from a tiny lump. Next day I decided I couldn’t be worrying about something that isn’t certain, I as focussed on getting a date for the PET scan only the results of this could tell me for sue if the cancer had spread.
That Sunday was Mother’s Day in the UK. I’m not sure what came over me but I felt compelled to do something and decided to video myself talking about newfound my situation. I hadn’t told my family I just talked into my phone in one take. That became my first Instagram post. Of course, I actually didn’t know how to post! Joe the insta guru in my house and now my insta manager helped me. Please follow the rest of my journey… @melissa_golding
Ps. I still haven’t seen one episode of Grey’s Anatomy!