I Don't Have Breast Cancer And This Is How I Know

Recently, I was offered annual mammograms because of a family history of breast cancer.

Genetic tests have been done and, as far as the professionals can tell, there's no underlying cause - the family history is down to coincidence. But, because they can never completely rule out a genetic factor - there's always something new for clever scientists to discover - I've been categorised as "medium risk".

My daughters are "normal risk" and, if I make it to fifty without developing breast cancer, that is how they will stay.

*   *   *

My first mammogram landed within a few days of both my four year old starting at a new nursery and my painful, highly problematic wisdom tooth being yanked out - the mammogram took third place on my list of things to worry about. As far as I was concerned, there wasn't a chance that anything would be found. The odds of this many family members developing breast cancer seemed so slim that I breezed along to the hospital, certain that whatever other health problems I might have to deal with in the future, breast cancer will not be one of them.

And the mammogram itself was easy. I arrived fifteen minutes early; they took me right in, had me stand at four different awkward angles with a boob squished into an x-ray machine (uncomfortable but not painful), and I was out of the clinic before my appointment was scheduled to begin.

I nipped into the M&S Foodhall at the front of the hospital, bought a painfully sweet chocolate chip cookie, and ate it at the bus stop while I typed a reminder into my phone to call for the results - there was no way I was going to remember to do it otherwise.

*   *   *

A week after I had my mammogram, I received a letter from the hospital telling me the (future) time and date of my mammogram.

My first thought was that it was a clerical error. I'd been booked in twice by accident.

Then I realised that this appointment letter - which, I now noticed, was headed "General Surgery: Breast" - came with a different information booklet from the first one. This information booklet talked about ultrasounds and biopsies and hanging around the clinic for "three hours or sometimes more".

I called the number: "I was under the impression I had to call for my results in three weeks' time so... is this, like, a routine appointment to discuss the results or should I be worried?"

The person on the other end of the phone scanned through my notes. She was one of those people who mutter to themselves when they read. Something which could be screened at recruitment stage, perhaps. "7mm... [unfathomable medical term]... left breast..." She couldn't give me any information; it would be discussed with me at the clinic.


A week later I received a much more reassuring second letter telling me that I should expect the first letter. I was being recalled, it said, because my results had been unclear - this wasn't unusual; it rarely meant a person had cancer. It was a well worded letter. I would have liked to have received it before losing hours of sleep.

Because, no matter how much I told myself that it was probably nothing (obviously I had googled the stats and it really was probably nothing), there was still that little voice saying, "What if...?"

What if I had cancer? Who would look after the kids while I was having treatment? Would Steve's work be at all accommodating? Would this person or that person or those people help?

What if I had terminal cancer? What if my fuzzy eye wasn't because I never wear my glasses but because it had spread to my brain? How much would it mess up my kids to lose their mother? Would the littlest even remember me? Would Steve have to give up work to look after them? How would he afford it? 

I had to see them grow up. I HAD TO. I want to know who they're going to become. I want to know what they do with their lives. I want to know if I'm ever a granny. 

What if it IS genetic? What if my daughters develop it, too? 

Should Steve and I get married? Doesn't it save on bureaucracy (yes, I had to google the spelling) when somebody's partner dies?

I tell you what: I've never been as consistently patient and engaged with my children as I was for the first few days after that letter. I wanted them to remember me as fun, kind and empathetic, rather than lethargic and prone to scrolling my phone.

But, surprisingly quickly, normality returned. My hunch was that it was nothing serious. It slipped to the back of my mind and I went back to snapping at the children when they wanted me to have fifteen sets of hands.

*   *   *

Appointment day arrived. The eldest was at nursery (she's loving it) and Steve had taken the day off work to look after the little one.

I took the bus to the hospital alone. The appointment letter had suggested taking someone with me but:

  1. "Someone" was looking after our toddler.
  2. Even if I could find a friend willing to use annual leave and accompany me, three hours of waiting room small talk felt like a worse prospect than being given bad news on my own. 
The first part of the appointment was a mammogram in the radiology department. They only did the left breast and I was in and out within minutes. 

The second part was wandering around the hospital for twenty minutes, trying to find my way to the breast clinic. The breast clinic has its own top secret special lift access (that's not true - it shares the top secret special lift access with the bowel clinic) and, as far as I can tell, is located in the branches of a rowan tree three miles north of the city (I did a lot of orienteering as a child so I do know what I'm talking about).

The clinic turned out to be quite nice, once I got there. The receptionist didn't ask me how I was and the waiting rooms were big enough that nobody had to make eye contact. 

I started by having a chat and an examination with... someone. A lady. Then another lady. Also a male medical student, but he was optional, and I think he would have quite liked it if I had refused. They all agreed that they could feel something "dense" in the breast, but weren't surprised that I had never noticed it myself - it was deep inside and not distinctly shaped. I was assured that it didn't look cancerous or alarming in any other way, but they wanted to do an ultrasound, just to be sure.

This was followed by me reading in a waiting room for a little over an hour. I had sat up late the night before finishing a novel which featured the death of a mother because... well... it wasn't what I needed to be thinking about that morning. I moved on to Sarah Millican's autobiography, which was also a bad choice because I didn't feel I should snort-chuckle loudly around people who were scared.

Eventually, I was taken through for the ultrasound. It was exactly like a pregnancy ultrasound, but nobody gave me pictures at the end. I kept looking up at the screen, as if I was going to see a heartbeat or a tiny little foot. Instead, I saw what turned out to be a perfectly ordinary lymph node hanging out in my boob instead of my armpit.

Everyone was happy that the lymph node was nothing sinister but, given my family history, they decided to be extra-cautious and stick a needle in it. And so they did. It all happened so quickly, I didn't have time to get worked up about a big needle being shoved into my breast without pain relief - and that was fine because it turned out to be no worse than having an anaesthetic at the dentist. And it didn't cost me £19.

I then spent another half an hour sitting in the waiting room on a chair which sighed every time I moved. I was feeling the lack of caffeine by that point and my tummy was about to throw an audible tantrum, so it was a relief in more ways than one when I was called through to the examination room and told that the results were absolutely clear and that I was free to leave.

*   *   *

I know too many people who didn't get the good news I got. 

I didn't expect forty to be the age when I would have multiple friends with cancer, when that would become A Thing That Sometimes Happens.

So many of us spend the early chunk of our lives feeling physically invincible, that the bad stuff can't really touch us, that our bodies would never let us down. I don't have breast cancer, but I've had a tiny taste of "what if?" - I've been reminded that I'm destructible and it's not a lesson I liked.

I still don't believe I'll ever develop breast cancer (which is a stupid belief - cancer doesn't care about statistical plausibility), but that doesn't mean I won't develop another kind. Or that I won't develop a different illness or condition. It doesn't mean I shouldn't get weird symptoms checked out. Or that you shouldn't, either. 

Speaking as someone who has had a colonoscopy, examinations aren't always fun, but I would rather receive the bad news and deal with it, than ignore a small problem until it escalates. I plan to see my children grow into adults.

I plan to see you adults grow into... eh... older adults? 

And I appreciate living in a country where it doesn't cost us a penny to have needles shoved in our boobs, just to be sure they won't kill us.