My name is Juliet. I am 27 years old. I have breast cancer.
One of the first things people ask me after I’ve told them I have cancer is: how did you find it?
For me, it was straightforward and unremarkable: around Thanksgiving, I felt a pea-sized lump in my breast. I worried over it for a month or two, but not enough to pick up the phone and call my doctor. Instead, I hoped the lump would just go away on its own. It didn’t. Then one Saturday night at the beginning of January, I discovered a second lump in my armpit. I knew enough about breast cancer to know that it spreads first to the lymph nodes in your underarms, and, being a bit of a hypochondriac, I panicked.
On Monday morning, I finally called my doctor’s office. In a hushed, almost embarrassed voice, I explained to the receptionist, “I have a lump in my breast.”
She told me to come in that day.
My doctor took a look, touched that tiny bump, and declared it a pimple. Or maybe a cyst.
Huge. Sigh. Of. Relief.
But just to be safe, she was sending me to the breast center, so they could confirm it.
No problem! I felt a sort of feminist pride to be making my first trip to the breast center. Only I waited nearly another month to call them for an appointment.
On February 1, I finally went in. A soft-spoken young ultrasound tech and a motherly nurse with a heavy Filipino accent ushered me onto a bed, squirted some gel onto my breast, and rolled over it a couple dozen times with an ultrasound transducer. As I squinted at the screen, trying to make sense of the black-and-white fuzz, I silently joked with myself that this was not how I pictured my first ultrasound; I’d rather hoped that it would be for a happy thing growing inside me instead of an evil pimple-cyst. The motherly nurse held my hand.
After ten minutes or so, the ultrasound tech looked up and declared it a cyst. Or maybe a pimple.
Huge. Sigh. Of. Relief.
But just to be safe, he wanted to biopsy the lump with a hollow-core needle. I suddenly felt very cold.
After I dressed, they led me to a scheduler, a brisk Indian woman with pictures of two teenage daughters on her desk. She booked an appointment for the next week and ushered me out the door.
The next week, my mom and my husband met me at work, and we walked the six blocks to the breast center together. I went into the same exam room, and was comforted by the same motherly nurse. While the same ultrasound tech prepped his equipment, I cried silently. I didn’t know why — maybe because I had no idea what to expect, or maybe I hadn’t taken any of it seriously until that moment. I can honestly say, though, that it still hadn’t truly occurred to me that I could have cancer.
The biopsy was unpleasant — as any new, slightly painful medical experience is bound to be — but the tech and his nurse were fast and efficient, and soon I was on my way home, ice pack stuffed in my bra and a humorously numb feeling in my breast. After a few hours, the lidocaine wore off, and I promptly forgot the whole thing ever happened.
At work the next day, around noon, I got a call from a radiologist at the breast center. He had a deep, cartoonish voice and a Midwestern accent. He talked for a few minutes, using lots of incomprehensible science-y words, until I interrupted him.
“I’m sorry, but wait one second: you’re saying it’s benign.” More of a statement than a question.
A long pause.
“No. I’m sorry. It’s malignant.” Another pause. “It’s cancer. We’ve already made an appointment for you to see a surgeon right away.”
I felt like my legs were going to give out underneath me. I was standing in an empty hallway in my office. The word echoed in my head.
I barely heard another word the radiologist said, and after another minute or so I thanked him politely and hung up. I looked all around the empty hallway, not knowing what to do next. I was shaking uncontrollably. I walked to a coworker’s office: I needed to share the news, to test the reality of the moment, to bump against it a little to see if it had any give. She wasn’t at her desk, but her officemate was. I didn’t care. I closed the door behind me and whispered those impossible words:
By the look on her face, I knew it was real: horrified, then shocked, then sympathetic. She rushed to give me a hug and rub my arm while I rolled the words around in my mouth a little:
Illustration by Rebecca Elves