BE Alive: Why Self-Exams Matter

Jan 5, 2016

Like many women, my family tree is covered in a Spanish Moss of cancer–Dad, both grandmothers, my grandfather, all of my great aunts, most of my great uncles.  Genetics are not my friend.  So when I turned 30, I resolved to do a breast self-exam every month just to keep a watchful eye on things.

Last month, I found a lump.

My internal monologue went something like this:  What was that?  (feels it again)  Was that there last month? (no)  Is there one on the other side? (feels other breast, no)  Is it still there?  (yes)  Holy s**t, what is that? (feels it, again)  Oh, this is not happening… (flooded with panic)

Every day for a week, I went looking for The Lump.  And like a bad penny, I kept finding it. (Out, damn spot.)  So yesterday, I called my doctor and learned that “I found a lump in my breast” are the magic words for getting a same-day doctor’s appointment.

I don’t know anything yet.  We’ve just started the testing process and it will take a few weeks.  The odds are on my side that it’s nothing, 8 out of 10 lumps are harmless.  But if it’s something, I caught it early.

So why did I write this post?  Because thousands of young women read this blog, and some of you aren’t doing your self-exams.  Almost-half of diagnosed breast cancers are discovered by women who felt a lump.  And early detection is the key to surviving cancer.

I do my self-exam on the 29th of every month, because my birthday is on the 29th.  It makes it easy to remember.  I even have a calendar reminder set on my phone.  It says “BE Alive,” because breast exams keep women alive.

If you’ve never done a self-exam before, the National Breast Cancer Foundation has a handy guide to show you how.  I recommend doing one both lying down and standing up.  I do the lying down one before I get out of bed, and the standing up one in the shower.  ABC explains what you’re looking for when you do a self-exam.

So, this month, on the anniversary of your birth, remember: BE Alive.  It could be the most important thing you do for yourself.

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  1. Sara says:

    Wow, that’s scary. Thanks for the warning, and keep us posted! Hoping the best for you.

  2. Carla says:

    Super scary and super grateful that you shared this… Please keep us posted… you have tons of people you don’t even know who think of you and care… sending healthy vibes from California! 🙂

  3. Sarah says:

    I was in this exact situation in September of 2014. It was an odd experience. I floated freely between “I’m sure it’s nothing” to Googling cancer wigs, looking up oncologists and funeral homes. I’m sorry that you’re having to navigate this experience- I will say that praying, keeping my routine, and attempting to get at least 8 hours of sleep kept me calm. When the benign diagnosis came through post-biopsy, I cried tears of relief into a gallon of ice cream. Sending love and serious prayers from Virginia.

  4. Emily says:

    Hi Belle,
    Great post. I am 28 and have had two lumps in removed from my breasts (one at 15 and one at 25). Both turned out to be fibroadenomas (benign). Please keep us posted!

  5. Kathy says:

    The YourMan reminder app is a fun and educational app that reminds you, and shows you how to do a breast exam. The models are not too bad to look at either. I work in health care and work with BCA and OCA (which also needs attention) groups. This is my favorite app to recommend to patients.

  6. Monica says:

    Hope the doctor can give you a quick diagnosis so you don’t have to spend too much time worrying, very scary. You’ll be in my thoughts.

  7. Pressley says:

    Oh, Belle. I know how you feel. I went through a similar situation in 2013 as a 24-year-old. (My first thought: I’m only 24!!!!) Everything turned out fine for me — the lump is a benign cyst that doctors check every year but is not expected to ever pose harm. But I know how awful it feels until you have that reassurance (and how it’s simultaneously gratifying and horrifying to get a same-day doctor’s appointment). I’ll pray for you that things work out just as well.

    Thanks, too, for writing this post. The only reason I found the lump was because my college dorm showers had self breast exam guides hanging on all the shower heads. Reminders like that, and your blog post, are so crucial for women.

  8. Airlie Loiaconi says:

    It’s so scary to find a lump. I found one in September and it was the longest week of my life until I figured out that it was nothing. You’re right, odds are on your side. Sending good thoughts and wishes for calm. You got this!

  9. s says:

    so scary, i am hopeful that the lump is nothing serious. thanks for posting this. i too have breast cancer in my family so i need to be better about doing self exams.

  10. Linda L says:

    Sending good thoughts your way – I hope like crazy everything turns out ok.

  11. Lynn says:

    Eep. *Runs into bathroom, feels up self*

  12. Chloe says:

    I’ve been a loyal reader for the last three years and although I don’t often post, I thought it was important to thank you for for your candor. I also want you to know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. I wish you a Happy and most importantly Healthy New Year!

  13. meghan says:

    Excellent post. I carry a BRCA mutation and after some unsettling tests, my oncologist had a frank discussion with me. The result of that talk was a bilateral mastectomy 16 months ago at age 26. I definitely consider myself extremely lucky and I hope that your testing comes back clear.

  14. Jen says:

    Thanks for the post. I turned 40 last month, so I took my doc’s advice and got a mammogram on Monday. I got a call yesterday that there are densities in both of my breasts, so I have to go back next Monday for a diagnostic mammogram and a breast ultrasound. It’s probably nothing–my small breasts are very dense, and I had a similar scare in my early 20s–but I feel like I’ve done the right thing, which lifts a HUGE weight off of me. Kudos to the both of us for taking action. Thanks for reminding everyone to take care of their own breast business!!

  15. MaryMary says:

    My doctor found a lump during my annual physical when I was 29. She recommended an ultrasound (at that age,, an ultrasound is more effective than a mammogram), and happily my lump turned out to be a piece of cartilege sticking out a little more than average from between my ribs. I hope yours is similarly benign! Good luck.

  16. Amy says:

    Thank you for being an advocate. At my annual mammogram on Dec. 15, a lump was found that was only detectable through a mammogram. I had a biopsy on Dec. 28 and got the good news on New Year’s Eve. But this experience will forever change attitude to self-care.

    Fingers crossed and prayers headed your way.

  17. Trish says:

    Thinking of you, Belle.

  18. Amanda says:

    I appreciate you sharing this with us. You’re in my thoughts in prayers for a quick diagnosis of a clean bill of health.

  19. Addie says:

    Thank you for using your platform to spread this important message. While I am at risk for Alzheimer’s and Diabetes, I blessedly have no family history of cancer. However, dense fibrous breast tissue does run in the family. So I have found a few small lumps that my gynecologist assured me were normal for my breast tissue, and that was scary enough. I use my hands instead of a loofah or wash cloth to wash my chest each day in the shower and feel for anything usual while I’m at it. That way it’s a habit and I don’t need yet another reminder in my phone. Good luck Belle, I’m sending prayers and anti cancer vibes from Virginia!

  20. Jess says:

    If, God forbid, it’s not benign and you want doctor/reconstruction referrals, let me know. I work at SHMC and work with them every day. Happy to pass on names of great doctors that you’ll like. ? And I so hope it’s nothing, but we all know how things change in a second. Big hugs.

  21. Sof says:

    So sorry to hear this, Belle. What you say is so true. Two months ago, my aunt found a lump by doing a self-exam, and it turned out to be cancer. Because she does self-exams regularly, she caught it very early and her prognosis is great.

  22. Sarah says:

    Same thing happened to me at 19 and also again at 28. Each time nothing. There are so many more benign options than malignant ones I think. Not to diminish your alarm, but hopefully to not let the fear totally take over. Best of luck.

  23. Lobbyist says:

    Thanks for sharing. Good luck. Healthy thoughts coming your way.

  24. Rachael says:

    Wow, thank you for sharing that with us. I’m praying for you, Belle!

  25. Sam says:

    I found one myself in my early 20’s (I’m 32 now), about the size of a grape. I had it removed, just in case, and it was benign. My GYN used a very helpful and frightening story of a fellow GYN that had recently passed from breast cancer because the benign cyst that she had chosen not to remove later masked the cancer spreading behind it. Worked for me.

    • Belle says:

      Good tip. How was the scarring, pain, etc?

      • Liz in London says:

        Funnily enough, my husband found a lump in my breast. It was a scary few weeks since I didn’t have a primary care doc at the time and was in a bit of a panic. I has just switched insurance. All turned out to be benign after the biopsy, but because of the size I decided to have a lumpectomy and be done with it. All in all it was about 6 weeks from start to finish for the experience. If anyone is in the DC area I can highly recommend Dr. Weintritt in Mount Vernon – he was seriously awesome and the PA’s there really helped calm me down when I went in for appointments. Try to keep your mind off of it if you can, you’ll know so much more after the biopsy.

        The pain after the procedure was managable. I only took two days on the meds given, after that they made me nauseous. I would recommend a front closure bra and your most comfortable button down to go home in. My scar is about 1 in. in length and hides about halfway under my bra. I’ve been using vitamin E cream for over a year now, and though it has gone away some, it will always be there. But I really don’t mind. I’ve been extra careful with sunscreen and bathing suits, but no one has every asked about it, and I would be happy to share if they did. If you go through an outpatient surgery to have it removed give yourself 2 – 3 days bed rest. I had surgery on a Wednesday and was back to work the next Monday.

        Thanks for posting – it is so great to connect with others who have gone through it around the same time (mine was over a year ago and I’m 29).

  26. Lindsey says:

    Thank you for the reminder! Prayers that everything turns out okay!

  27. Lauren says:

    Thank you for this reminder, Belle- I am not consistent with my self exams, and I needed to hear this. I am hoping and praying the best for you!

  28. Whitney Gibbs says:

    Sending love and good vibes from Georgia. I feel like you’re a sister now that I’ve been reading your blog for five years!

  29. Miss Happy says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us. It is important to remember that cancer is treatable and survivable if you catch it early and treat it! I’ve heard countless stories of people who waited to go to the doctor because they were scared of what they might find. This is the absolute worst thing you can do.

    Unfortunately I was in the minority and when I found a lump, it was cancer. I was only 22 years old. Treatment was not fun, but I got through it.I am now 31 and cancer free. Since my diagnosis I finished law school and am getting married this summer to a man that started dating me when I had no hair, and stood by me every step of the way. A cancer diagnosis is hard, but you can get through it. Especially if you find it early.

    Sending good vibes your way Belle and hoping that everything turns out okay!

  30. Ashley says:

    Belle, at age 23 I had the same thing happen. I had surgery to have the cancer removed and intraoperative radiation. I’m happy to say that I just celebrated 5 years being cancer free on Christmas Eve. Doing self checks and getting treatment early is the best thing that young women can do. My words to live by are Pretty and ProActive in Pink. Being ProActive is so important and I hope your story encourages other women to do so. In the meantime, we will just pray that this is either an enlarged lymph node OR that you caught something pre-cancerous really early on. My thoughts are with you as you go through this difficult time.

  31. Allison says:

    If it is not cancer, you will be ok.

    If it is cancer, you will still be ok.

    In June 2014, I was diagnosed with Stage IIb invasive ductal carcinoma. I was 32 years old. I found it myself through a breast self exam. Right breast, 11 o’clock, upper part near my armpit. Since then, I went through oncofertility preservation, 5 surgeries, 21 rounds of chemo, 30 rounds of radiation, and 6 months of lymphadema therapy. I still get a shot every 4 weeks and take a pill daily. I will for at least 4 more years.

    But, I am alive. And, I am immensely grateful to my family and friends who supported me during what was an incredibly challenging time. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone, but for those of us that must walk that path, you can make it. Things will be ok. Never the same, but your life can still be great.

    I’m not a professional blogger, but I did blog for some time to keep my family and friends apprised of my cancer journey. If it’s any comfort to you at all to understand what it was like for at least one person, here it is:
    https://amazonwithin.blogspot.com/.

    My other advice is that this process should not take weeks – ask for your doctor to request an ultrasound and 3D mammo within DAYS. Once the images are confirmed, if you are referred for a biopsy, try to go to a place that will give you same day results. If you can’t find a place that does that, tell the doctor “I want to know as soon as you know. Please do not wait to tell me. Please call me immediately [or at a designated time].” When they call you, ask them to email you your pathology report and your films. If they won’t email them to you, ask when you can pick them up. You will need this information to book an appointment with a surgeon or an oncologist. I didn’t want to think about the worst case scenario before my imaging and biopsy, but in hindsight, I wish I had been better prepared for those first few moments.

    I hope you are well and have great results, but even if you do have cancer, you will still be ok.

    Big hugs!

  32. MidWestChic says:

    Sending positive vibes your way, Belle! Many women find lumps and bumps and ignore them for one reason or another, so I am thrilled to hear you got to the doctor so quickly. For those women who are uninsured or under-insured, do NOT let that stop you from getting your CBE or mammogram… each state has a breast and cervical cancer early detection program to keep cost & lack of insurance off of the list of worries in your mind once you find a lump.

  33. Mallory says:

    Great PSA Belle-young women need to realize that breast cancer can, and does, happen to them and when it does it can be much more aggressive. I also want to point out a few other misconceptions:
    +you only need mammograms every couple years is bull and my theory is that insurance is behind this “guideline” It was a mammogram that caught my cancer and thankfully very early. If I would have followed the new guidelines it would have been much bigger and harder to treat. Yearly is the only way.
    +If you have a family history of breast cancer you can actually start mammos earlier than 40. This is what I did.
    +only something like 10% of breast cancer patients have a family history of it. I am asked this by most everyone, as if it would protect them if they don’t have it in their family. It doesn’t, at all.
    Good luck Belle-most “lumps” really are benign so you should be fine. So scary though I know.

  34. Kate says:

    Just added that reminder to my Google calendar. Thanks for reminding us–who knows how many women you may have helped. Prayers for your health!

  35. Sarah says:

    Hoping it is benign. I had bilateral fibroadenomas removed ten years ago at age 22. Scary at the time, but glad it was all benign.Pain was manageable, although difficult to lift anything or reach above my head for awhile. Hard if you’re a stomach sleeper like I am. Scars have become very faint these days, thankfully, but they were ugly for years. It took a long time to get feeling back in my nipples – several years for the tiny nerves to regenerate. In case this ends up being your diagnosis and path forward, and you have a child in the future, The scarring and the fibroadenomas can affect breastfeeding ability, though (it did for me). Wishing you all the best.

  36. Emily says:

    Thank you for posting this. Self examination is so important – this was a great reminder for me, as I’ve been slacking. I too have a cancer-heavy family history and personally had a fibroadenoma excised during college.

    Best wishes and I hope you only hear good news from your physician!

  37. K says:

    Sending good vibes your way!

    I agree that self exams are so important, but I’m terrible at remembering. After hearing a presentation from BrightPink, I signed up for their monthly text alerts. They’ve really helped me be diligent with self exams. I got my text reminder today and just now finished the self exam.

  38. Kay says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story and for the very important reminder to do self-checks. I have a history of breast cancer in my family (grandmother died before I was born), so I should really know better to do monthly exams. This post was the jolt I needed that I’m being cavalier about my health.

    I’m wishing you all the best for benign results, as well as peace during this scary time!

  39. Valerie says:

    Sending hugs, prayers, and good thoughts your way. Thank you for sharing a very personal story and offering very helpful advice.

    You’re right- the majority of lumps turn out to be benign. I’m the only non-doctor in a family of medical doctors, including two sisters. We lost our mom to breast cancer in 2010, and since then have all done genetic testing (none of us carries the BRCA mutations), and get yearly exams including ultrasounds. I’m terrified every time I feel something that I haven’t felt before, and have called my doctor in a panic several times, but it’s always been ok (fingers crossed).

    No matter what you have to deal with, I have faith that you’ll be fine.

  40. Maria Pate says:

    Prayers coming your way.

  41. Tech Writer says:

    Much love to you, dear. You are genuinely cared about, and I hope this proves as easy a time for you as possible. Please keep us informed as much as you are comfortable doing. Sending good thoughts your way.

  42. Anonymous says:

    In the interest of providing actual medical recommendations rather than anecdote, the US Preventive Services Task Force DOES NOT recommend breast self exams.

    https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/UpdateSummaryFinal/breast-cancer-screening

    • Belle says:

      Their reasoning appears to be that women find lumps during self-exams and then get unneeded mammograms and lumpectomies because they’re concerned and this leads to false positives. I don’t think this is a good enough reason to discourage women from doing self-exams when other studies have found that 40% of cancers, particularly in young women who are not encouraged to get mammograms until they’re in their 40s, are found by self-exams. I’m going to keep doing mine, and while my experience may be anecdotal, the information I linked to comes from the medical community.

  43. Hoping everything is ok. Thanks for the reminder about self exams. I like the trick of doing one each month on your birth day. When I was in college I found a bump in my breast and totally freaked out (my mom had breast cancer after all). I called my doc the next day and she suggested that I keep an eye on it for a couple weeks and see if it goes away (which it did) because she guessed it was just a random fatty deposit (I think). hoping it’s the same non-issue for you

  44. […] Why breast cancer screening matters. You can be at any age, and get breast cancer. […]

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