“At least you caught it early.”
If you have ever had cancer and lucked into surviving, as I did, you will hear this phrase almost daily. It’s well-meaning, it’s comforting and it makes everything seem OK. That is, if you’re the person saying it.
If you’re the person hearing it, a 30-year-old woman with no family history and no genetic mutation who is harboring the mother of all tumors in your left breast, it’s confounding, frustrating and debilitating.
The truth was, they hadn’t caught it early. I had somewhat effortlessly managed to smuggle an eight centimeter tumor in a size A breast past two ultrasound technicians. This article of contraband continued to sneak its way past three different gynecologists during cursory checkups. How had I become so skilled at hiding this tumor? It’s because every check up sounded like this:
“How old are you?
“Do you have any family history of breast cancer?”
“Okay I think you’re fine.”
Over and over. For five years. Until the secret my body was keeping became too much for it to bear. A tiny drop of blood coming from my nipple is what finally tipped everyone off, not the machines designed to see inside me. Within a day I was being biopsied and the next day, I had cancer. Or at least I finally knew I had cancer.
The color red became a theme as the days went on. My MRI resembled a meteorologist’s map, with an enormous red, splotchy swirl moving into my tissue like a hurricane. I was dumbstruck at its sheer size. How had we missed it? I asked this very question to my surgeon. He stated, matter of factly: “They missed it because they weren’t looking for it”
I learned from this experience of having undetected cancer that I was the one that had to look for it first. I knew something was wrong with my body. I felt something very hard in my left breast that was not present in the right one. But as much as the doctors brushed it off as nothing, I also found myself ignoring my gut. Who wants to look for cancer when the doctors say you’re fine?