One day at the start of 2023, I was scrolling and saw that one of my Facebook friends had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite the fact that we hadn’t really talked since college, it still shocked me. She is my age with two young boys. People my age with two young boys shouldn’t have breast cancer. So I texted a mutual friend who was closer to her and asked, “Do you know anything about this?”
She shared what she knew about her diagnosis story with me. Looking back at our exchange, I simply replied, in all caps, “NIPPLE CHANGES?!” I didn’t know that was a thing.
So now I knew of this girl from college who was going through chemo, along with another close family friend who got diagnosed just two months after her wedding. That was two people my age — two too many — whose lives were just like mine until they weren’t. I know the timestamp for a mammogram is 40 years old and I was only 36, about to turn 37, but I had a feeling of, If them, why not me, too? I couldn’t wait any longer for a mammogram, so I didn’t.
The good news is scheduling a preventative mammogram is free with insurance and easy (I literally did it online, on my phone, with no referral needed). While I did have to wait about a month for my screening appointment, that was fine with me because I had no concerns — just a bit of paranoia seeing young women around me seemingly getting cancer out of nowhere.
The day of my appointment — Monday, July 10 — came, and the mammogram was about what I expected, and also nothing like what I expected all at the same time.
Regardless, 20 minutes later, I was on my way. Results came back the next day — Tuesday, July 11. “Unremarkable” and “clear” were words I saw in the report. The other term I noticed? “Dense tissue.” That said, all the faux worry that I had built up went away in an instant with my A+ report card. I texted it to my husband, and he replied: “Wonderful news!”
Two days later — July 13—I afforded myself the luxury of a late-night bath after wrestling with my toddler to go to bed for a good 45 minutes. I was lying down in the tub, scrolling TikToks and something caught my eye that wasn’t a new dance challenge on my screen. It was actually…my nipple. My left nipple appeared slightly flatter than my right. I thought for sure my son had “squashed me” while he was laying on my chest making me sing the entire Trolls songbook for the last hour before he was eventually lulled to sleep. I decided to check on things in the morning when I was sure they’d go back to normal.
Friday morning — July 14 — I began my day by flashing myself in the mirror. Things looked…the same as they did the night before. At that point, I heard my brain whisper the phrase: “nipple changes.”
I quickly chased that with a hearty “Nope. No way.” I just had a clear mammogram a mere days ago. This must be “what my boobs look like now”—a little smooshed. That’s motherhood and your mid-thirties for you.
Throughout the day Friday, “nipple changes” echoed more and more frequently in my head until I decided to call my OB’s office to set up a breast exam.
The next available appointment was on Monday, which was fine with me — this was not urgent, if anything, it was silly. I went on to have a great weekend in Michigan with my family and thought exactly zero times about my nipple.
On Monday, July 17, I saw my wonderful doctor. I started my appointment like I do every time we see each other…by showing him recent pictures of Atlas, who he delivered, and waiting for some sort of quirky comment back.
“Oh, little surfer boy!” he said, right on cue. “So, why are you here?” he then asked.
“I feel so silly,” I said, as I started to explain my situation. I even peppered in a few “I’m sure it’s nothing” for good measure. All the while, he was looking over my fresh mammogram images, confirming they were, in fact, all clear.
A typical breast exam followed. A minute or two later he said, “Well, it’s good you came in and that you noticed such a small change. Because you do have a slight firmness on the left side that’s not on the right side.”
The word LUMP was never used.
Still, I panicked. How did I miss “a firmness”? Like most women, I tend to feel around every now and again and nothing has yet to stop me in my tracks.
Moreover, how did the mammogram miss “a firmness”? If there was anything suspicious, wouldn’t my X-ray be lit up like a Christmas tree?
He drew up orders for a breast ultrasound and more mammogram images. Even though I was caught off guard by this, we both were relatively unbothered as he posed that it could just be a benign duct injury or clog of sorts.
Two days later — Wednesday, July 19 — I went in for the follow-up imaging. I was very calm about things, even bringing my work laptop with me so as not to skip a beat while making “double sure” this was nothing.
I just had a mammogram. It was all clear. played on repeat in my head. To me, that was worth hanging my hat on — along with the rest of my clothes, as I stripped down into a floral, oversized robe.
This time, the new mammogram images were centralized to my nipple — which is a sort of barbaric hell you shouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
Then, I moved on to the ultrasound portion of the appointment and was done five minutes later, with no complaints other than it tickled — especially when they imaged underneath my armpit. My next step was to wait in the lounge for my turn to meet with the radiologist, a standard practice for anyone coming in for additional views.
A few minutes later, a nurse came to the waiting area and said the doctor was ready to talk to me about what she saw in the images. I don’t know why, but that choice of words didn’t sit right with me. I figured, though, it was a neutral enough line as we made our way down the hall to her office.
The doctor joined us a few minutes later. The first word out of her mouth was “Unfortunately” — and that was the first moment of the rest of my life.
I blacked out immediately, and so the majority of the rest of the conversation was a bit muffled in my memory.
But I recall all of the following words and phrases: “solid mass”, “abnormalities”, “lymph nodes”, “concerning”, and “suspicious”
I don’t know how, but I found my voice again — enough to ask two questions. (Okay, three. The last being: Can I call my husband?)
- First, “Why didn’t my mammogram show this?” Answer: because I have dense breast tissue. It’s like a deer in the middle of the road on a foggy night. You can’t see it, but it’s there.
- Secondly, “Are you saying I have cancer?” Answer: “I’m saying I don’t know what it is,” she said with expert political correctness. “That’s why we have to do a biopsy next.”
The nurse was standing by with big puppy dog eyes ready to help me get scheduled for the very next morning — Thursday, July 20. For those keeping track, it was just one week from noticing my nipple looked a little odd, to getting a solid mass and a suspicious lymph node biopsied. I’ll spare notes on that procedure, but it’s exactly as fun as getting a needle to the nipple sounds.
This brings us to Monday, July 24—the day the biopsy results were in.
Today is the day I find out if I have breast cancer.
That was my very first thought when I woke up that day. Not something I thought I’d ever say to myself, especially just a couple of weeks after my 37th birthday.
Not long after I got up from another sleepless night, around 9:30 am, my phone lit up with a call from my doctor — the same one who had done the in-office breast exam exactly one week before. He’s a soft-spoken guy, but when he said my biopsy came back as Stage 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma breast cancer with a spread to my armpit lymph node, I heard him loud and clear.
But…I had a clear mammogram.
But…I don’t smoke.
But…I barely drink alcohol.
But…I exercise almost daily.
But…no moms, grandmas, or aunts in my family have any history of breast cancer.
But…I’m only 37, not even the age they recommend starting to take breast health seriously.
But none of that mattered. All that mattered was that I had breast cancer and was already set up to meet with an oncologist later that same day.
I can’t stress enough how accelerated this timeline was.
July 6: My 37th birthday — not a care in the world
July 10: Preventative mammogram appointment — still not a care in the world
July 11: Mammogram clear — definitely not a care in the world!
July 13: Notice my nipple looked flatter than normal — a little odd, but not concerned (see above)
July 14: Call to make a doctor’s appointment — feeling ridiculous, this is probably nothing
July 17: Breast exam — still feeling ridiculous (see above)
July 19: Breast ultrasound — feeling unbothered, but good to be safe
July 20: Breast biopsy — feeling surprised it’s gone this far, but hopeful for a benign explanation
July 24: Officially diagnosed with Stage 2A ER/PR+ HER2- breast cancer with lymph node involvement — feeling utterly shocked
Talk about things escalating quickly.
“This is something we’ll need to take care of,” my doctor said matter-of-factly.
I paused to think of my son, not even two years old yet.
The source of all my pride. My biggest joy. My best work. The missing piece who transformed Matt and I from just a couple, into a full-blown family. At the same time I was taking this call in my office, Atlas was scribbling on my carpet with a yellow highlighter, none the wiser that the doctor who brought him into this world just set off a nuclear bomb in his mother’s.
“I agree,” I said back with quiet confidence.
“Soon after we get off the phone, you’ll be receiving a call from our Nurse Navigator. She will get you set up with your oncologist.”
Like clockwork, when I hung up with him, the Nurse Navigator rang.
“I can get you in today,” she said. “With the Medical Director of Oncology.”
Despite this all happening really fast, and completely out of nowhere, I was so relieved to be paired — immediately — with such an esteemed doctor. I learned that same afternoon what my treatment plan would look like:
16 rounds of chemotherapy. I’ve completed 8 so far. If all goes to plan, I’ll ring the bell on December 22, 2023.
A double mastectomy with lymph node removal in January 2024.
Several weeks of daily radiation treatments.
Breast reconstruction surgery.
A complete hysterectomy. I learned shortly after my diagnosis that I am positive for the BRCA2 genetic mutation, which gives women an incredibly high likelihood of breast and ovarian cancers.
10 years of drug therapy.
This is a lot. But I’m taking care of it, like I agreed to. No matter how devilish the treatment is, and it is, I will send every bit of it back to hell. Believe it.
I have kept this news mostly to myself for 98 days.
After telling a small group of close friends and family, it became evident how traumatic it is to share, how shocking it is to hear, and how difficult it is to process. But now it’s almost the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I need to step up and share.
I can’t stress this truth enough: it is only because of “some girl from college” (who has become my close friend now) deciding to “share on social media” that she had breast cancer, that I ever learned that a nipple change was a sign of malignancy. I would not — I repeat, I would not have gone to the doctor for a breast exam otherwise, especially since I had a clear mammogram just two days before.
Her sharing her story saved my life.
So, here I am, doing my part to spread awareness, and more importantly, spread action. Examine your breasts today. Look at them in the mirror. Have your partner look at you. If you don’t know how or don’t want to do it yourself, make a breast exam appointment with your OB-GYN. Schedule a mammogram, no matter your age. Waiting until 40 would have killed me.
Emily Belden (Emily Bond) is an author with Harlequin/HarperCollins. She inked a two-book deal and her starred-review debut novel Hot Mess came out via Graydon House—a select hardcover and trade paperback imprint dedicated to publishing book club-worthy fiction with strong commercial appeal. Her sophomore novel Husband Material is sold in bookstores nationwide, including mass retailers Target and Kroger. She lives in Chicago with her husband and toddler son.
This article was originally published at Emily Belden. Reprinted with permission from the author.