What does cancer look like? Scrutinising photos of me on my 40th Birthday, just weeks before diagnosis, you would never have known that my world was about to change. Too often we confuse what cancer looks like with what chemotherapy looks like. Someone with early stage breast cancer will most likely look perfectly 'normal'. Maybe the more pertinent question is "What does cancer feel like?"
|This photo was taken on my 40th birthday, a month before diagnosis.|
For me it felt like a little grain of rice just under the skin. A second, smaller tumour resembled a piece of grit. Surprisingly, these two tiny, painless lumps measured a combined 2.4cms! But breast cancer comes in many guises. Inflammatory breast cancer may manifest as a hot, swollen breast. Nipple inversion or puckering can be a sign of disease, as can a hard, moveable lump, dimpling or discharge. Pagets disease of the nipple can rarely been seen, and invasive lobular cancer is difficult to palpate. There are many forms of breast cancer, varying in location (ductal, lobular, nipple) and hormone status (oestrogen and progesterone positive being the most common, with HER 2 positive cancers being generally more aggressive). Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) can present as tiny calcifications within the breast, and is generally deemed a pre-cancerous condition.
Beyond the tangible, cancer patients often talk about feeling slightly 'off', sensing that something is wrong, but without knowing exactly what. A poor immune system, recurrent candida and simply feeling tired all the time were unread clues to my early stage cancer. Weight loss, night sweats and persistent aches and pains could point towards more advanced cancer.
It's empowering to be pro-active with breast health. Get to know your breasts. Examine yourself at the same time each month (it's best not to check during your period when breasts can typically be tender and lumpy). Know what's normal for YOU. If you feel changes or are concerned, a good first call for monitoring would be a thermo-scan, which is non-invasive and can show changes in breast tissue years earlier than traditional mammograms.
Despite knowing that we should be breast aware, how many of us actually are? Unfortunately tragedy is usually the catalyst for change. SInce most tumours have been growing for around 7 years before being large enough to feel, what would I say to the 33 year old me? I would tell myself "It's time to overhaul your life. It's OK to put yourself first." I would cut out sugar and swap my processed, fast food diet for greener, whole foods. I would learn to read my body better - to see how I felt after eating gluten (bloated, itchy) or dairy (like I had a constant low-level cold and heavy chest). I would stop rewarding myself with a glass of red wine at the end of a long day or a bar of chocolate on meeting a tight deadline. I would rest when I was tired, rather than pushing through with a cup of coffee or a can of coke. I would stop those sabotaging negative thoughts which were slowly destroying me. And I would tell myself how fantastic I would feel for making these simple changes.
So lately when someone tells me I look well, then pauses, the unspoken question "ARE you well?" hanging in the air, I think about how great I really feel, inside and out, and reply "Thank you, I AM well!"