Three days after I lost my dearest aunt to pancreatic cancer, I felt a small lump on the border of my armpit and right breast. Four months later, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Due to my age, I fall into the AYA group (Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer); I had no prior knowledge that there was even such a category. Most times I think words can’t explain how I felt the day of my diagnosis, but I’ll try to convey as best I can. Hearing this news while still grieving the loss of my aunt to the disease – devastating! Looking my toddler in the eye – gut wrenching! Overall, life changing!
My relationship with my aunt was so special, she was like a mother to me. Having basically raised me until I was 11 years old, she was the one I looked up to most during my formative years. She taught me foundational lessons of kindness, compassion, and the importance of education. I remember her teaching me my alphabet, how to count and read, but she also spoilt me rotten. Her last lesson to me a year before she passed was about forgiveness (a lesson I’m honestly still studying). Furthermore, I believe that she continued to look out for me even beyond this life. I truly hold on to this belief with hope and faith, because it gives me strength and lessens my fear of what awaits us on the other side.
My aunt was given 2-4 months to live following her pancreatic cancer diagnosis, but she succumbed to the disease within two weeks, yes two … freaking … weeks! Her passing was very traumatic, especially because I now live in another country, so I did not make it back in time to kiss her and hold her hand through it…you know that human touch that’s often underestimated. I arrived the day after she died. And often console myself by thinking maybe it was for the best that I did not make it in time.
To add insult to injury, three days after she passed, I felt the lump. While I was getting dressed to go help with funeral arrangements, I thought of my dear aunt and a little voice in my head urged me to touch myself. “Examine your breasts,” it said. Creepy, isn’t it? But I think women have this innate sixth sense, or intuition, whatever you want to call it. I proceeded to do a breast self-examination, which I probably only did one time prior in my life, having always relied on my OB-GYN to do it. Upon my first attempt I felt a small lump at the border where my breast tissue ended and my armpit began. I repeated and felt the lump again. I had no obvious symptoms whatsoever, but this to me was a warning sign. My first thought was, oh no, it can’t be, I was in sheer disbelief. Was this divine intervention? I thought, did my aunt really send me a message beyond the grave? It was indeed surreal! However, because I never really did my own self-exams before, I had nothing to compare what I had felt to – my catch-22!
The next 4 months I was smushed, rubbed, pricked, nipped, and snipped so many times. Let’s just say I had no choice but to get over my fear of needles and scanxiety (another story altogether). Going from mammograms, to ultrasounds, to biopsies, to CT / PET scans, also having 2nd and 3rd doctors’ opinions, until it was confirmed. And get this, the lump I felt turned out to be a harmless cyst. The cancerous tumor was discovered deep in dense breast tissue, undetectable by my self-examination. Had it not been for me feeling something rather small, and acting on it, the tumor would not have been found when it was. I must say I’m super thankful that my GP listened to me and followed through in referring me for an ‘early mammogram’ since I am under the age of 40.
The last year seems like such a blur to me but unmistakably resounding at the same time, as the journey has been long with no breaks in between the different phases of treatment. While fighting my battle, I also lost others along the way, and had to find a way to cope with it all. While undergoing chemotherapy, I lost a friend, she succumbed to complications of cancer treatment on Mother’s Day of all days. While recovering from bilateral mastectomy, another family member passed away of liver cancer. And as I was completing the last paragraph of this story, I’ve just learned that my friend lost her mom to ovarian cancer. There are no words to describe the headspace I was in last year. Yet, I vividly recall, and go back to the day I thought of my aunt, heard that voice, and touched myself. I am certain that listening to that voice is the most important thing that happened which gave me a fighting chance to beat this disease.
Like many women, I relied on my annual OB-GYN visit for the doctor to physically examine my breasts. As I had not been doing it myself for years, I was quite unfamiliar with the landscape of my chest area. That part of my body, which is so visible, so accessible, with those glaring symbols of femininity, our breasts. I leave you with these messages, don’t take your youth, and good health today for granted. Also, act on and inquire about anything which doesn’t feel right, be your own best health advocate. More importantly, I challenge you to please touch yourself now, caress those breasts. It may lead to pain or pleasure (chuckle), but my wish is that it leaves you with the latter.
Note: Because music is my therapy, the title of this article references the song ‘I touch myself’, sung by Chrissy Amphlett, lead vocalist of Australian rock band Divinyls, who also fought her own battle with breast cancer.
By Mila Knight