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Dealing (and not dealing) with finding a breast lump in your early 20s

TextLydia Ibrahim

To coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, one writer opens up about her personal experiences

I envisioned that my early 20s would be filled with many challenges: powering through nights out, learning to drive, graduating from university. Unfortunately, driving the car into a small wall on my driving test wouldn’t be my biggest concern. When I found a large breast lump one day in the shower, all of my plans changed overnight. 

My mind quickly found itself wandering to the obvious after finding the lump. I had convinced myself that the worst was going to happen. After many pep talks with myself, on the week I had firmly decided to tell my family, I found out, in the strangest twist of events, that my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Some might think that watching my mother endure chemotherapy would have compelled me to come clean about the lump – but it had the opposite effect.

In between my university studies and my stint as an intern, I used my time unwisely: visiting ‘web doctor’ websites to quell my fear of actually walking into a doctor’s surgery to get examined. Lumps come in all shapes and sizes, and confusingly, with equally varied symptoms. Some felt like marbles, others like pebbles and some moved like ‘mice’ (yes!) through the breast tissue. Every time I tried to examine myself to pinpoint a description that matched my lump, it seemed to feel like all of the above.

On my internet voyage to discover whether I was going to be ok or not, I learned that if you type ‘breast lump women 20s’ into your search bar, ‘cancer’ will list itself on most results. This initial shock is enough to scare anybody, but particularly those who attach ‘the big C’ to feelings of trauma from seeing a loved one become ill.

“I’ve had minimal conversations with friends of my age about breast health. I’ve encountered countless flyers and leaflets but as a relatively fit young woman, I admit I ignored most of these”

My feelings towards my breast lump would change one day. Ruth from GrlClb, an online blog, posted a series of posts about her own breast-awareness story on Instagram, after having some issues with her breast ducts. Ruth wrote candidly about bleeding, sharing pictures of her recovery post-biopsy. These posts were the light I needed in face of nights scrolling through Google, and made me feel less alone. I felt prepared, to some degree, for what might ensue once I went to have my lump checked out. I educated myself about post-biopsy bruising, the kinds of pain I might expect to feel, and most of the things I wondered about.

When I finally walked into the doctor’s room, motivated by this new information, I was faced with the embarrassment of having to tell him how long I had waited to visit. In response to this, though I expected judgment, I was simply told that if I did have something serious, “Something would have probably happened by now.” I found out it was likely that I had a fibroadenoma, a word I only had a very vague understanding of. After being referred to have an ultrasound, biopsy, and pre-operation, I was sent to have my breast lump removed – after learning that the lump was benign but large enough to be a cause of concern. 

After the dust had settled, and I’d taken stock of the journey, I’d seen far too many hospital interiors and far too many people had seen my breasts than I’d have liked. I’ve had the time to reflect on how breast awareness is dealt with, and strangely in my 21 years, I’ve had minimal conversations with friends of my age about breast health. I’ve encountered countless flyers and leaflets but as a relatively fit young woman, I admit I ignored most of these. When I attempted to actually pin down the most awareness I had encountered, I came to think of all the silly chain messages on Facebook that I had received circa 2010 – which most men are probably unaware of.

There were tons of messages that would work themselves around women’s inboxes, telling them that this was a secret post, but that they should write a status with their bra colour. Nothing was mentioned about how to check your breasts, how regularly to do it, to set reminders on your phone, and hinted at the idea that this was something which should be done covertly and hidden away from men.

“My experience not only taught me that getting checked early is vital for your physical and mental health, but that we should be doing more as a society to make women aware of different types of breast issues”

Unfortunately, breast conditions and breast-related surgeries still feel somewhat taboo and denying or ignoring the existence of breast lumps, as I learnt first hand, is dangerous. For some, reliving or talking about their experiences with breast illnesses can be understandably traumatic, and the bra-colour campaign seemed to reflect the under-the-rug ways in which we talk about women’s health.

If you’ve found a lump, go and speak to someone straight away. Chances are, you might be lucky, and it’s highly likely it’s benign. My experience not only taught me that getting checked early is vital for your physical and mental health, but that we should be doing more as a society to make women aware of different types of breast issues. For those, like me, who have had a parent or loved one suffer from cancer, learning of your own circumstances can be a traumatic situation to face. For those with family members who’ve suffered from severe illness, accepting another family member’s ill health is a huge and emotional undertaking. I am incredibly lucky in my non-cancerous diagnosis, but the fear of having the illness alone was enough to deter me from seeking medical advice for years.

I hope that this account this will encourage other young women to check their breasts, and seek help early on if they find something they’re worried about. 

If you asked me back then, I couldn’t even imagine how common it would be for my friends to ask me, “How’s your boob doing?” in public, but I‘m so glad we’re finally having the conversation now.

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