My Right Breast


I have a two-inch scar on my right breast. After my surgery last summer, Atticus said he didn’t notice it and I was as beautiful as always, but he is besotted with me and biased so I sought a different opinion from my friend Betsy. When I pulled down the collar of my blouse and yanked my bra to one side to show her the angry, purple jagged line, her eyes widened, and she tried to conceal her taken-abackness by remarking in an upbeat tone that I looked “dangerous.”

I look less dangerous now. The scar has faded to a light brown. When I run my fingers along its contours, I feel a puckering of the skin, and a slight crater where breast tissue used to be. When I move my fingers to the right of the crater, I feel familiar lumps. At least I think those lumps are familiar. But I’m not totally sure. Is it normal breast tissue that just feels pronounced because it’s lying next to a crater? Or is it weirdly, malevolently lumpy there?

A routine mammogram a year and a half ago detected a mass in my right breast that appeared to be a fibroadenoma. Fibroadenomas are benign breast lumps that often shrink over time. They are not cancer and will never turn into cancer.

No matter how benign your lump appears, however, no radiologist will guarantee that you don’t have cancer. They will give you choices: wait six months for a follow-up mammogram; get a core needle biopsy to remove a section of the mass; get an excisional biopsy to remove the entire mass.

My radiologist referred me to a breast surgeon, who, being a breast surgeon, recommended surgery.

This was around the time that several debates about breast cancer were raging. A study was released that questioned the efficacy of mammograms in detecting cancer. There was also controversy about the overuse of surgery to remove fibroadenomas–which are reasonably easily identifiable and benign. Finally, there was speculation that biopsies could even cause breast cancer.

The more I read up on the studies, and particularly the treatment of fibroadenomas, the less I believed a biopsy was warranted. Plus, there were downsides: risks associated with any surgical procedure; a mangled breast; the impact of a breast biopsy on my ability to get health insurance. At the time, I was insured by a COBRA plan, but what would happen when COBRA ran out? What if my rates doubled because of a biopsy that turned out to be negative? What if I could no longer get insurance due to a “previous existing condition”?

So I chose to wait six months for a follow-up mammogram to determine if there had been any change.

Six months later, indeed there was. The previously detected lump was smaller, but there was a new, questionable mass behind it. After mammogramming and ultrasounding my poor right breast within an inch of its life, the radiologist told me the second mass appeared to be another benign tumor called an intraductal papilloma. But because I now had two masses, and the first one partially obscured the second, the radiologist and the surgeon told me in no uncertain terms that I had to get a biopsy.

At this point, I was convinced I had cancer. I was convinced I had cancer because I was divorced. Divorce, according to any number of studies designed to keep divorced people up at night, is the #1 cause of wrecking the health of you and your children. More than tending crops in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than dodging bombs in the Middle East. More than being sold into sexual slavery in Thailand.

If I had stayed married, I reasoned, I would have been a beaten-down clinically depressed Stepford Wife who might one day have stuck her head in the oven, but so what? I would not have ruined my children’s lives and and I would not have cancer.

Since I was convinced I had cancer I chose the excisional biopsy; better to remove those malignant lumps entirely, in one fell swoop. And if I did not have cancer, undergoing needless invasive surgery that might mangle one breast was due punishment for the fact that I had ruined the lives of my children by getting divorced.

The surgery itself was a cake-walk. I had no ill effects from the anaesthesia and my discomfort was so mild I didn’t even need Tylenol. But I spent the next five days before I got the lab results steeling myself for the sure promise of an early death.

Only the test results were negative. Both tumors were benign. I did not have cancer.

Yet.

The biopsy also revealed the presence of atypical lobular hyperplasia, a group of abnormal cells that while neither cancerous, nor even pre-cancerous, are thought to increase a woman’s odds of invasive breast cancer–by how much is unclear, although the risk appears to jump exponentially when one is compulsively surfing medical web sites late at night.

I was told that if I wanted to be aggressive, I could take tamoxifen, a medication that blocks the effects of estrogen in the breast tissue, but has a host of unruly side effects, such as strokes, blood clots, other kinds of cancer, and early menopause. Since I didn’t even have pre-cancer, I decided to forego this route and opted for routine mammograms instead.

My annual mammogram is around the corner, on June 9th.  I’m trying to be zen about it and not attach to the outcome. I don’t want to believe that bad divorces give people cancer and I’d like to think that there are plenty of grains left in my hourglass–although if I die, at least Prince can’t haul my ass into court.

If I sound paranoid over getting a routine mammogram, it’s because I am. What this past year-and-a-half has taught me–that the rich can get away with not paying child support; that wealthy people can sue you and not have to pay your legal fees; that there is really no way to talk sense into angry ex-spouses who are determined to sever their children’s bond with the other parent; that a sane, fit mother can lose custody of a child simply because she lacks the funds to hold onto her legal rights–has dampened my faith in justice and made me leery of ominous events that can smote you arbitrarily out of nowhere.

That said, Atticus and I have decided to seize the day. Yesterday we booked a family vacation to Maui that we can ill-afford but desperately need. In August, I will lounge on a chaise by the hotel pool, smoothie in hand, my scar peeking out from my bathing suit neckline. I will glance over at the lounge chair next to me and take Atticus’s hand. We will watch our youngest two squeal as they zip down water slides, splashing into the water below.

I will lean back in my chair and try to wrap this moment around me. For now, we have health, laughter, love, and beautiful children to raise. For now, we are scarred, but alive and thriving. I hope, for many years to come. But for now, at least. For now.

My Right Breast

About perilsofdivorcedpauline

I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.
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9 Responses to My Right Breast

  1. Does medical science know everything? No. They do what they know and like all people they make mistakes and sometimes the person on the other side of the desk may not be as informative as one should be. Self-education is important. Caveat emptor. I have had two prostate biopsies which scared the bejesus out of me only to find out years later that neither one was necessary. – Good luck. Carpe diem. Life is precious.

  2. It sounds like you’re taking care of yourself. Within reason. I’d do exactly what you did and I have an intense history of breast cancer in my family so I’m always afraid when it’s annual mamogram time. Have fun on your trip!

  3. “Seize the day” — I love it! I know it’s hard to be Zen about these things, but I hope you are taking care of yourself and finding ways to keep your stress level down. You are so brave to share this story with all of us and I thank you. I’m overdue and will be scheduled my mammo today! Big hugs to you, my dear!

  4. Jenny Heitz says:

    I thought I was the only divorced woman who thought she would might sick from instigating the divorce. I dread mammograms for that very reason. The best thing you can do is go and play (Maui is a wonderful place to do just that). Your mammogram results aren’t something you can control, so you might as well have a good time. And I don’t really believe in that kind of karmic punishment, anyway. If karmic punishment existed, I think your ex would have faced more repercussions by now.

  5. alisha says:

    you are a brave, beautiful woman. you take today, now, tomorrow, and maui and shove them up…well, you get my point. xo to you.

  6. I get it. All too well. You are indeed strong and courageous. Make sure you go for lots of hula in Hawaii.

  7. I don’t think it is as simple as ‘divorce gives you cancer’. Though I do question if the stress of my mother’s divorce somehow jump started her brain cancer. But…she ate horribly and even though she was thin she did little that is thought of today as ‘healthy’.
    I am appalled that your doctor suggested you take Tamoxifin, whch is controversial even in those with the most severe invasive breast cancer. it is a truly toxic drug. If you ever are interested in doing some reading, I found a fascinating book called ‘Becoming Whole’ by Meg Wolff. She beat stage three breast cancer through macrobiotics and her story is truly inspiring. Incidently she is not divorced. Since I read and write about whole foods, I happen to think that alot of her conclusions have some validity.
    I am happy for your sake, and for your kids sake, that it wasn’t cancer. Because that is what I dealt with 7 years after my parents split. It was a decade I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

  8. I found my first breast lump in June of this year. It was a fibroadenoma, too. It was also in my right breast. Your post was very helpful to me as this has been a rough year for my health and, ironically, it is the year I’ve done the most about my health! I changed how I eat (and, for the most part, how I think about eating), I became more physically active (and changed how I think, for the most part, about being physically active), and I lost 30 lbs and 10% of my body fat. But, I guess all those years of not paying as much attention to my health are catching up with me. Well, that and getting older. So, I will continue to be proactive. I hope we both continue to have benign results in our follow-up mammograms.

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