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Breast Cancer in My 20s: The Big Scary 'C' Word

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On Friday 22 June, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, aged precisely 29 years, 10 months and 20 days. I'd always wanted to write a blog, but never had anything to blog about. I could have written about my Endless Quest to Find a Man and Not End Up a Lonely, Old, Cat-Obsessed Spinster, but I figured the world didn't need another Bridget Jones.

I found the lump in my left breast on Saturday, 4 February. I wasn't actively checking my breasts, I was just having an idle fondle - don't we all do that at times?! I had just arrived in the surfing resort of Itacaré, northeast Brazil and was in the hotel room by myself. Despite the fact that my maternal grandmother, Hetty, had breast cancer in her 30s and died in her early 40s, I didn't immediately assume it was cancer. I knew that benign breast lumps were commonplace, and that it was just important to get it checked out as soon as I returned a week later to Buenos Aires, where I was working as a journalist at the time.

Unfortunately, the health system in Argentina isn't the same as in the UK. I was told I needed to see a gynaecologist and, after calling 10 different clinics from the list approved by my private insurer and being told none of them could see me before March, I started to panic and tears sprung to my eyes at work. Why wasn't there a GP I could see immediately? I didn't even know the word for 'lump' in Spanish - it doesn't come up much in financial journalism.

Luckily, a close friend was on hand with the Spanish translation ('bulto') and told me that I could go straight to a private emergency room. So, on Tuesday 14 February I found myself waiting at 7am for an appointment. Not for me the hearts and flowers that Valentine's Day - no, I would be mostly getting my boobs out for grey-haired old male Argentine doctors!

After some initial prodding and squeezing, I was taken for an ultrasound and then a mammogram, which didn't hurt anywhere near as much as I had been told it might. (Perhaps because my boobs are on the smallish side). I then went back to work and returned a few hours later for the result.

The doctor told me, with a warm smile on his face, that my breast lump had smooth, clearly defined edges and moved around and was therefore "almost definitely" a fibroadenoma - a non-cancerous lump. It was 12 millimeters wide. I had told him I was soon to move to Ireland and he said that I didn't need to have any more tests but that, if I really wanted to double check, I could see another doctor in Dublin after I moved. He reassured me that 99% of lumps with these characteristics were harmless, and he sent me off on my way with my printed X-rays and ultrasound results. Little did I know, I was in the 1%.

Ireland Saved My Life

A month or so later, I had moved to Dublin and was trying to adapt to the shock of swapping glorious Argentine sunshine for miserable, harsh, sideways rain before starting my new job. On the insistence of my Mum and then-boyfriend, I begrudgingly paid the 60 euros it costs to see a GP in Dublin and went to get my lump double-checked. The female Irish doctor was lovely and, after a bit of squeezing and poking, she confirmed it was almost definitely a fibroadenoma and that she would refer me to the hospital for further tests, just to be sure.

After a six-week wait, because my case was not viewed as urgent, I went to St. Vincent's hospital in Dublin to meet the consultant, another very friendly and competent young female doctor. She again told me that the lump was most probably an innocent fibroadenoma, and that she would book me in for tests to get me that peace of mind.

There was another four-week wait for these tests. Finally, on 14 June, a little more than four months after I found the lump, I was given a second ultrasound, then a mammogram. I thought this was strange as both Irish doctors had already told me it was unusual to do a mammogram on someone younger than 35, but I assumed it was necessary.

After the mammogram, they called me in for a third ultrasound, and it was then that the doctor told me she needed to do a core biopsy. This involved firing an enormous needle-gun into my breast under local anaesthetic and poking it into my lymph nodes to extract a tissue sample while I watched my own personal drama unfold on a computer screen.

As the anaesthetic took effect, I got pins and needles in my legs and, when I tried to speak, my voice came out all wobbly. I'd never had a local anaesthetic before, apart from once at the dentist, and I thought I'd just gone into hospital that day for an ultrasound, so I was understandably shaken. After the ordeal, a nurse gave me a cup of tea and some biscuits as I sat, feeling shaky and unable to control my tears.

Now, call me naïve, but at no point did it even occur to me that they might be doing these tests because they thought I had cancer. When three or four fully qualified doctors in two different countries tell you that you almost definitely have a non-cancerous breast lump, you stop worrying about cancer, or at least I did. I had no idea that the Argentine doctors were foolish not to have given me a core biopsy, particularly given my family history.

The advantage of my naivety was that I did not spend the next week worrying while I waited for my results. So clueless was I, in fact, that during that week I flew to Manchester for a bridesmaid dress fitting for my best friend's wedding (let me tell you, the low-cut dress didn't look too hot with my enormous bandage sticking out over the top of my breast!), I did the Dublin Docklands 8k run in the fastest time I had ever run in my life, and finally, a few days before the result, broke up with my Irish boyfriend, just to make sure I would have to face the most awful day of my life as alone as humanly possible.

On Friday 22 June, I skipped out of work and told my team I'd be back in a couple of hours, knowing I'd have to wait for my 10:15 appointment. To my surprise, as soon as I got to St. Vincent's, I was seen pretty much straight away. A female nurse collected me from the waiting room and took me to a private room, where a male doctor greeted me. The three of us sat down.

"Did you bring anyone with you today?" the nurse asked. And that was the moment I knew.

I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, Grade 3, oestrogen positive and HER2 negative. My tumour had more than doubled in size since the tests in Argentina four months earlier, to 26mm. They needed to do further tests but initially, they said, the results showed that my cancer hadn't spread to my lymph nodes, which was incredible news.

It's a Big, Scary word, Cancer. But my initial thoughts were that if you took away the 'C' word, it was just a lump in my breast that needed to be removed before I could undergo some treatment. I had no idea at that stage about the implications on my fertility and the amount of time I would need to essentially dedicate my entire life to making sure the cancer never came back.

I was in shock, but at the same time unbelievably thankful that I had gone to see a doctor in Dublin and hadn't just relied on the word of the Argentine doctor. Ireland, for all its incessant, torrential rain, way-too-cold-for-June temperatures and general not-South-America-ness, had saved my life.

Over the next few blog posts, I'll fill you in on what happened next.