Boobs. Knockers. Melons. Tits. Tatas. Jugs. Bubbies. Breasts. There are many adjectives to describe the fleshy lumps above our rib cage.
Breasts fascinate the world. They bring many of us pleasure, provide sustenance to a newborn baby, are utilized to entice or dishonor. In some instances they are safeguarded, covered, flaunted, admired, protected, restrained, or simply just ignored.
Women of every generation have potentially felt the sting of boob envy. Depending on the latest trend, our breasts are always expected to be in vogue. With advances in surgical procedures, breast vogue is now attainable, which enables sycophants to indulge their desires to emulate their celebrity idols.
I don’t have much in the boob department, which doesn’t worry me. In fact, I enjoy the autonomy of wearing clothes and not fretting about cleavage or “tempting men.”
A few years ago, my work in health research led me to a project working with a breast cancer charity. The charity aimed to expand their reach and increase knowledge of their services amongst minority women. This aspiration was based on previous research which suggested that awareness of breast cancer and its signs/symptoms is considerably lower in women from ethnic groups, especially in South Asians, as compared to other groups. Early diagnosis of breast cancer is vital in ensuring recovery and survival. Hence, the need for a project researching hindrances to seeking help in the local highly South Asian populated community was crucial.
As part of the project, I attended a two-day course to develop a better understanding of the charity’s work. I learned about caring for my breast. Preventatives such as healthy lifestyle, appropriately checking breasts (monthly self breast exams), signs, symptoms, and what felt like much more. I received a fancy certificate on the final day, which ascertained that I knew all I needed to know about boobs.
I completed my apportioned project shortly afterwards and that was that. I forgot all about the project, the course and, to be honest, I forgot all about breast cancer.
Two years later I found a lump in my left breast while showering.
My hot shower suddenly felt scolding as my body temperature increased every time I ran my fingers over the lump. This lump seemed to have appeared overnight. Why hadn’t I noticed this? I thought to myself. It’s a fairly substantial lump. How could I have missed it?
I searched my brain trying to recall my learning from that two-day course, two years ago. What were the signs and symptoms? How do I do a breast check? I am the right age and or demographic? I asked myself questions but could remember surprisingly little.
I knew all I needed to know about boobs.
My anxiety didn’t subside. However, I managed to internalize it, as I do with most of my issues. I calmly finished my shower, dressed, and went to work. I spent the day reassuring myself that I was overreacting.
That evening, my anxiety reached new heights as I felt the lump over and over again. I finally asked my mother to check my breast. I needed a second opinion. She could feel a lump too which was smaller than the lump in her throat as she choked back tears. My mother overreacts to most things and especially health-related issues. Through her choked tears, she managed to lecture me, reminding me that my breasts needed to be producing milk at my age and not lumps. My lack of marriage and producing babies was the reason for my lump, apparently. Needless to say, her speech did little to relieve or reassure my anxiety.
I had to wait four painstaking days to have my breast examined by my friendly female physician. She was comforting but not dismissive of the lump. Part of me hoped she would be dismissive. She examined the lump again and again and with every stroke, my heart sank further into my stomach. Finally, she said, “Get dressed and meet me at my desk.”
“You will need to be referred to the oncology clinic at the local hospital and have further investigation done.” Her words pierced through me.
It’s a peculiar feeling having morbid thoughts which aren’t based on any facts. I started assuming the worst, visualization and making plans for circumstances that weren’t a reality. My mother’s words rang in my mind, I haven’t had a baby yet. What if I can’t now?
Everything melancholic and hopeless flooded my mind.
I came home and dreaded telling my mother. I acted my nonchalant best and declared it was just a routine check at the oncology clinic and everything should be OK. I even lied that the doctor had said there is nothing to worry about.
To my absolute surprise, my mother didn’t panic or start flapping as I have witnessed many a time before regarding various other issues I faced. She was utterly calm. She even got up from her armchair, walked towards me as I was sitting on my bed, then proceeded to nuzzle my face into her breast while kissing me hard on the top of my head. Breaking free from her grip, I looked up at my mom, her eyes looked straight into mine and she said, “Everything is going to be fine.“ I believed her.
My religion teaches me that a mother’s prayer is never overlooked or disregarded and I know my mother’s prayers for me have always protected me.
I spent four excruciating weeks waiting for my oncology clinic appointment. During this time, I didn’t touch my breast at all. I didn’t feel the lump and I refrained from hugging anyone. My breast felt heavy and not part of my body. I struggled to put it out of my mind, but it was always there lingering in my darkest fears.
The night before my appointment – I didn’t sleep. I had only half-heartedly insisted for my mother not to accompany me. Secretly, I just wanted to curl up in her lap.
On arrival, I waited a quick 20 minutes before I was summoned into the senior consultants room. She asked me some routine questions about the lump for no more than 30 seconds. Then, gestured for me to go behind the curtains, instructing me to remove everything on top. She burst through the curtains before I laid on the examination table. Clearly, she was in a rush. After fondling my breast [unforgivingly] for 40 seconds, she announced that I needed a scan which may determine what that lump was. The frown on her forehead did little to console my apprehension.
I redressed and met the consultant at her desk where she handed me a slip, instructing me to make my way down stairs. I had barely opened my mouth at the receptionist downstairs when the slip was taken from my hand and I was asked to take a seat.
The five minutes I waited felt like five hours. In those short minutes, I prepared a speech in my head to rival all of Steve Jobs’ speeches. OK, maybe not, but I was truly presuming the worst at this point.
I was summoned by a nurse and asked to remove everything on top. As I laid there, helpless and in complete acceptance of my circumstances, prepared to hear the worst, the doctor walked in. Pleasingly, she was patient with me. She talked to me very calmly and asked me how my day had been. She inquired how I felt in general and about my lump, then confidently stated that she was going to help me. She fulfilled that promise.
After briefly feeling my lump, she placed the scanner on my chest and within seconds announced, “You have a cyst in your breast.” She continued, “It’s a big one, size of a golf ball I would say.”
“A cyst,” I said as a tear escaped my eye. “The size of a golf ball,” I repeated as I wiped the tear from my eye.
“You have a cyst in your breast”.
“How do you know?” I asked stupidly. She smirked and said, “Your lump is filled with liquid, it’s not solid.” I sighed deeply. “Ahh OK,” was my response pretending to understand. I hardly cared what she had said. All I knew was a cyst is not cancer and cancer is not a cyst. Therefore, I was fine.
“OK, we will sort this out, let me get a syringe”.
“Sort this out, like now?” I asked.
She didn’t respond, but proceeded to walk away from me to the other side of the room and reappeared before I could ask anything else.
“We will just drain it, OK?” she said, placing the scanner over my breast again while holding a syringe with her other hand. She was truly talented.
I nodded and she dug the long needle deep into my breast and began draining the cyst. It was painful but strangely satisfying, knowing that the reason for my emotional agony was leaving my body. I could see the syringe filling up with a dirty yellow liquid with bits of red in it – and with it my hopes for life and a child filled up too. A few more tears escaped my eyes while I lay there having my boob drained. Not because I felt sorry for myself, but because I felt relieved.
The whole process lasted no more than 10 minutes but felt like a few seconds. The doctor informed me I had been brave and to smile because my fears had been eliminated. I couldn’t thank her enough.
I couldn’t help but smile as I walked out of her office and found my mother in the waiting area with her head lowered and prayer beads in her hand. She was muttering Dhikr (remembrance) silently and intently. She looked up and smiled at me. Precisely as she had promised, I was fine.
I hope my inconsequential, but very personal story, can raise some awareness of an issue that is imperative. I write with the optimism that it can help women and men think about breasts more often and for the correct reasons. Breasts are wonderful! They need to be enjoyed, appreciated, and respected by all. But most importantly, they need to kept healthy and checked. Early diagnosis of breast cancer is fundamental to the recovery and survival of patients. You know your body better than anyone else, trust your instincts and trust your body. Below is a chart that explains the simplicity of self breast exams – these should be done once a month, after you’ve finished your monthly period. Please take the time to learn the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and how to check your breast correctly.
For more information on breast cancer, and self breast exams – check out BreastCancer.org