By Jules Sanderson
Four months ago I turned 25. I quit the best paying but least favourite of my three part-time jobs, cut my hair short, booked a spontaneous trip to New York, started an evening course in journalism and found a lump on my left breast.
It’s late on a Sunday night when I feel it for the first time. I sit straight up in bed and say “Holy shit” out loud to my empty room. I feel the area again, in case I’m mistaken. No, definitely a lump. I grab my phone and google “lump breast help.” All the websites (and I look at a lot) have a calming tone to them and list all the other possible causes for lumps that aren’t the one we’re all thinking of. It will probably be fine, they seem to imply, but you should contact a doctor. Very soon.
That’s exactly what I want to do but it’s so late. I lie back down and feel the lump again, adrenaline having replaced tiredness. We’re all alone in my crappy rented room, just me and this lump. And the lump might be trying to kill me.
What the fuck do you do when you MIGHT have cancer? Who do you call? What do you say? Who should you tell? Should you tell at all? I pick up my phone again and type out a tweet. Found a lump on my breast and now I can sleep #shit. I delete it immediately.
“You’re being crazy,” I tell myself as I lay back down. “You don’t have cancer. Lots of people find lumps. You’d know if you had cancer. Stop being crazy. You don’t have cancer.” But still I can’t sleep. I keep touching my breast and pushing until I feel the lump again. Every time is a crushing disappointment.
I start trying to sing myself to sleep like I did when I was little. I’m mumbling some lyrics but half way through all the words become fuck and then I’m screaming hoarsely until I realise what I’m doing and clamp my mouth shut. When I do finally doze off I dream of cancer. Not the disease or the treatment or me having the disease or the treatment but literally the word cancer. Over and over I dream it written out, different fonts and colours and handwriting all spelling out the same thing. The same war.
I call the doctor’s surgery first thing in the morning. They tell me it will be at least a week’s wait for an appointment until I mention I found a lump and then I’m booked in for Wednesday morning. Two days away. I can handle two days. I have to handle two days.
The receptionist pulls up my address and personal info to book me in. ‘Oh, I see you’re eligible for a cervical cancer screening as well. Make sure you get that booked in at some point too!’
I hang up and go to work, thinking perhaps this is adulthood—wondering which way my body will try to kill me next. We’ve never been friends, my body and I. I’ve always felt, at best, vaguely irritated by its inability to look the way I want it to. But it’s never been so actively hostile before, never revealed the full potential it has to f-up my life as I know it.
At work I say nothing because it’s neither the time nor the place. I fall into a spreadsheet so mind-numbingly dull it would usually make me what to rip my own head off but that day I don’t come up for air until 6pm. I call in at the supermarket on the way home, intending to buy kale because it’s healthy and stuff, but walk out with two doughnuts. YO-fucking-LO.
I don’t remember anything from Tuesday because it’s the day before Wednesday and that’s the only day that matters to me anymore.
Wednesday morning I see the doctor. Turns out “lumpy breasts” are a thing and I have them. She can’t make a diagnosis because it’s too close to my period and that’s when the female body does unusual things, so can I come back next week? I leave feeling a little better but not that much and wishing someone had mentioned that thing about periods before I paid the train fare and took time off work.
There’s a week until my next appointment and in that time I hardly think about cancer at all which is probably weird but really just such a relief. Soon enough I’m back at the surgery, hoping that whatever crazy hormone causes lumps in breasts can also un-cause them.
No such luck, the lump is still there. It doesn’t feel “sinister” but the doctor wants to send me to the hospital for a scan just in case. “Better safe than sorry,” she says.
I feel very young when she tells me that, because I already feel like I’m sorry for so much in my life but that maybe I don’t even know what sorry is yet and everything I thought I knew will actually just be bullshit. I haven’t felt young like that in a really long time.
Yesterday I had my scan at the hospital. The first doctor I see can’t feel anything. He asks me to try and I push where the lump has been but can’t feel it either. I lie there topless in the cold room and don’t know what to say. Am I crazy? Am I one of those people who hallucinates illnesses and waste doctors’ time?! Have I made this whole thing up without realising it?!
Afterwards I sit in the waiting room to be called in for the scan. I have an X marked on my left breast in biro, where my “lump” should be. It feels like a cross I haven’t earned, a mark of solidarity I don’t deserve. I look at the other women seated around me and feel like a fraud.
The ultrasound doctor (another man, as I lie on the examination table I try to remember the last time I look my bra of for someone who wasn’t a healthcare professional, but can’t) feels something but not a lump. He calls it an “inflammation of the join where the tissue of the breast meets the muscle of the ribs.” It’s fine, it’s nothing. An injury like any other—a pulled muscle. I feel…I feel like…I don’t know how I feel.
I’ve just paused in writing this to feel my lump that’s not a lump. It’s still there; I don’t know why I couldn’t feel it at the hospital. It’s so solid, perhaps the only solid thing at this time in my life when everything else is shifting beneath my feet. I want things to shift though, I made them shift when I turned 25 and realised I wasn’t on the path I wanted to be on. And my non-lump, my “holy-shit-silent-scream-cancer-dream-oh-fuck-not-now” lump is a part of that new life I’m trying to make for myself. It’s the fear and uncertainty and the possibility of things happening that are out of my control. It’s adulthood and I’m not ready for it, but it’s here. I can feel it.
Jules Sanderson is a freelance writer currently based in London. She spends a lot of time staring out of windows, researching cheap flights on the internet and forgetting to instagram plates of food before she eats them. Read her words at readtravelwrite.net or on Twitter @readtravwrite