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Mia Freedman: “All I hear is ‘lump’ and ‘feel something’. Then, fear.”

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There’s nothing quite like sitting in a room full of anxious women pretending to be nonchalant.

As I begin to type this, I’m doing just that. It’s not so hard for me, the pretending. I’ve had a lifetime of practice disguising my anxiety. You can read about that here.

Around me this morning are about a dozen women, all of us waiting to go in for mammograms and ultrasounds. Some, like me, are there for regular standard checks. Others, I assume, are facing the particular terror of having found lumps or noticed irregularities. I’ve been there. On those occasions, I’ve sat here with fear gripping my throat.

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Today we all sit here quietly, waiting for our names to be called, with the spectre of breast cancer hanging heavily over our heads. The many, many women we all know who have sat in waiting rooms just like this only to hear bad news. Celebrities. Friends. Mothers. Aunts. Acquaintances. Grandmothers. Fellow school mums. Neighbours. Sisters.

Sometimes it feels like breast cancer is an epidemic.

We’re all in our 40s in the waiting room this morning. One woman knits. Another reads a magazine. One has brought in some work and taps diligently away at her laptop while the rest of us peer at our phones with distracted urgency. It’s 8:45am.

There are tea and coffee facilities and Tina Arena sings “I’m in chains” softly through the speaker system. It’s a nice place as waiting rooms go but nobody wants to be here. (Post continues after gallery.)

I have a weird relationship with medical tests. I sort of love having them even though the lead-up and the tests themselves make me unbearably anxious. I love the heady flush of relief I get afterwards – assuming all is well. Like the endorphins after exercise. Hate the exercise itself. Love the aftermath buzz.

And so it is.

I’ve been to this clinic once before. My friend works here although I’m not seeing her because that might be weird, her feeling my boobs. I have a mammogram and ultrasound each year. I’ve been doing this since I was about 37 when a doctor doing a routine breast check after my pap smear found a lump that worried her and sent me away for further testing.

It turned out to be… my rib.

I have a new GP now.

But still, I got into the habit of having regular mammograms and I just kept going.

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Mammograms aren’t fun in the same way that pap smears aren’t fun. Awkward small-talk. A bit uncomfortable. But they’re necessary.

My name is called and I have my mammogram. Then I wait to see the doctor for the results (at this clinic you stay for a few hours and it all happens in one go instead of the results being sent to your GP). “All good” she says. First hurdle cleared.

I then strip off again and she does the physical exam. She must do this dozens of times a day, hundreds of times a week. We chat about this and that as she’s feeling my boobs and her tone never varies but I notice something about her movements change when she gets to an area underneath my nipple. Chat chat chat but I feel sick.

Mia (Image supplied)

She reaches for a big black texta. “It’s a bit lumpy there and I can feel something but I think it’s just normal breast tissue,” she says in a totally neutral tone while drawing a golf-ball sized circle around the area.

My stomach flips over.

“I’m not worried,” she adds firmly. “Let’s just get it ultrasounded to be sure.”

Of course all I hear is “lump” and “feel something”. The rest of her words – the reassuring ones – evaporate into my fear.

The same thing happens on the other breast. Another lumpy area. She repeats what she said about the first breast. “Is it significant that it’s in both breasts?” I ask hopefully, wanting her to say “Oh yes! That means it’s highly HIGHLY unlikely to be cancer, just something structural on both sides with the way your breast is shaped.”

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But she doesn’t say that. Just another black mark on my other breast. Black marks.

She tells me to get dressed and continues chatting away in a very calm fashion. I suspect this is standard procedure and that it probably means I have cancer. I’m suddenly freezing cold and impossibly anxious and I start slurring my words.
My tongue won’t move properly in my mouth.

I wander back to the waiting area to be called for my ultrasound, fighting back the urge to either throw up or burst into tears. I text my husband instead.

“They found something that needs to be looked at. I’m struggling. About to lose it.”

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It's important to check your breasts regularly. (via iStock)

“Breathe. It’s going to be OK. Do you want me to come?” he texts back immediately. I look around.

“Nobody else’s partner is here. Everyone white-knuckling it. I’ll be OK.”

That last bit is a lie but I don’t want to draw attention to myself. My friend comes out to chat and notices how stricken I look. She’s very familiar with my hysteria around medical tests and my fear of cancer.

“What’s wrong?”

“She found something and she drew on me with a texta!” I whisper hoarsely.

“Oh don’t worry about that! I’ve been drawing on people all morning! Doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad! Happens all the time!”

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“Does it?” I hiss urgently. “I’ve never had that before.”

I feel a bit better but not much.

A few minutes later, I’m was called for the ultrasound and the procedure is explained by the nurse. Any questions, she asks.

“I have texta,” I tell her gravely.

She seemed unconcerned. “OK, well Louise will be doing your ultrasound and she doesn’t give results. The doctor will do that afterwards so don’t ask any questions during the procedure, she’s very strict about that.”

My heart sinks further. I begin to shake. I know this is normal for sonographers. They’re never meant to interpret what they see on the screen. But it’s agonising for someone like me who assumes the worst and reads all sorts of things into silence. (Post continues after gallery.)

As a result, I have decades of practice at charming, tricking, guilting and generally manipulating sonographers into giving me a top-line “all clear” during an ultrasound even when they’re not meant to.

But it sounds like Louise is non-negotiable so I don’t even try. I just lie there, my hands and feet suddenly hot while the rest of my body shakes with a cocktail of cold and fear.

I know what you’re thinking. HARDEN UP. FFS. It’s JUST A TEST. People have them – and far worse – EVERY SINGLE DAY.

This is correct. I tell myself the same thing as I’m lying there. But you know how some people lose it with heights? Some with dogs? Lifts? Tunnels? Spiders? This is just my thing. My reaction to medical stuff is not normal. It’s out of all proportion to the likelihood of anything bad happening. I don’t just go to what-if, I start planning my funeral and wondering how I’m going to break the news to my family.

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It’s exhausting like you wouldn’t believe.

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So Louise takes what feels like forever, carefully moving the ultrasound wand around the texta circles. She goes back to those spots a few times after I think she’s done. She gets more imaging. She takes the ultrasound all the way up to my armpits.

Lymph nodes, I think. My whole body floods with that dirty flight or fight adrenaline. And dread. And certainty that this is very very bad.

Eventually, Louise is finished and I’m sent back to the waiting area for the last time before I see the doctor for the final results.

“That didn’t take long!” my friend says cheerily as she walks past with another patient. “Really?” I whisper. “She took ages and ages on the texta circles.” I am stricken. (Post continues after gallery.)

“That’s because she’s extremely thorough. That’s normal. You weren’t in there for as long as most, believe me.”

I don’t believe her.

The doctor calls me back into her office. “Totally normal,” she says. I blink. “What?”
Like always, I struggle to comprehend the good news because I’ve been living the bad news so definitively in my head. “Just normal fatty breast tissue.”

The word “fatty” has never sounded so good.

She draws me a diagram and explains the way lumps of fat can get trapped between ligaments and feel lumpy but that the lumps feel soft as opposed to cancer which feels hard.

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I stumble into the street in a bit of a daze, shaken and exhausted and thinking about all the women who won’t be fortunate enough to get the all clear today.

15,000 women (and about 70 men) are diagnosed with breast cancer each year.

My thoughts and love go to every one of them along with the thousands of others already fighting that and other diseases.

This is an extract from Mia’s weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

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