It all started really innocently. I laid there on my bed in the familiar comfort of my home, one arm cradled under my head, the other drawing small circles across my right breast. Everything seemed to feel right, though somehow at the age of 25 I seemed to know so little about what was “normal” for my body.
I cross referenced the article on my nightstand, guidelines for a self-breast exam I happened to stumble upon, before moving to my left side. As a long-time hypochondriac, I felt like I had won something with the exciting nothing I found in that first breast.
In the last little swirl of my fingertips on breast number two, the rapid beating of my now terrified heart was not the only abnormality I found.
I held my breath as I pushed around a small, pea sized lump that seemed to float unanchored under the surface. I pushed it around like droplets of water under Saran Wrap. I pinched and squeezed it, hoping that like some inconvenient pimple I could pop it and make it go away. I hoped it was just another unlikely illness I had diagnosed myself with online.
After an hour of obsessively fondling myself, I only knew one thing. I had a lump in my breast and I had never been so scared. Could it really be that before I hit 30, the dreaded C word was growing quietly in my body?
Breast cancer is the second largest cause of death in women, affecting an estimated 220,000 women in the United States annually, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. This form of cancer is often treatable if detected early.
While abnormalities found in a women’s breast do not always mean cancer, investigating any changes promptly are critical. In the case that is serious, time is of the essence.
My own lump turned out to be a benign cyst, something my doctor said was quite common in young women in their 20s. This was a huge weight lifted, literally, off my chest. I had carried that fear silently, alone, for two weeks before I scheduled an ultrasound.
The effectiveness of self-breast exams has become a topic of debate within the healthcare community. At one time, the practice of feeling for lumps in one’s own breasts with circular motions of the fingers was a commonly recommended procedure for early breast cancer detection. Recently, the recommendation of monthly self-exams for women aged 20 and up, has been withdrawn.
In 2014, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, one the world’s largest nonprofits working to fight breast cancer, stated that self-exams were not recommended for breast cancer screening. Results of an analysis of randomized controlled trials on self-exams found that there is, “no difference in breast cancer survival rates between women who did routine breast self-exams and those who did not. And, women who did breast self-exams had more false positive results, leading to nearly twice as many biopsies with benign (not cancer) results as women who did not do breast self-exams.”
Studies on self-exams are in a strange kind of murkiness, with conflicting information coming in from different sources. A 25-year-long study of 90,000 women in Canada found that women who received regular mammograms did not experience less breast cancer related deaths then those who did not. Their conclusion was that manual exams, performed or taught by medical professionals, were more, or just as effective at detecting cancer as mammograms.
Concrete information on the validity of self-exams is hard to track. So, what’s a girl to do when it comes to caring for her chest?
What is clear is that the best source on a woman’s breasts is herself. Nay-sayers and fans of self-exams alike conclude that it is a smart idea for women to become very comfortable and knowledgeable of their own breasts. That understanding can be easily and privately gained by performing regular exams on yourself.
Knowing what little bumps, ridges, spots and sensations are normal for YOU, will make it possible for you to spot changes that you can then report to a pro.
As for me, I will most likely have that awkward, harmless little lump floating around in my breast for a long time. It is a frequent reminder that I need to take care of myself. Benign or not, I like to check up on the pesky thing every so often to make sure it hasn’t grown or become painful.
So ladies, particularly you millennials in your mid-20s, don’t be afraid to cop a preventative feel of yourself occasionally. To know thy self is to love and protect thy self.
Uninsured or under insured women may be eligible for free breast and cervical cancer screening tests through the Well Woman HealthCheck Program. For more information visit, azdhs.gov/hsd/healthcheck/wellwoman.