A woman looks back at me from the mirror, a woman who has finally found her self-confidence, seeing a whole picture, eyes to toes, skipping over small imperfections, over a mole under her eye, over old acne scars and over a larger one that turns one nipple into a little cap, hidden in the areola.
I remember standing here over a year ago, not looking into my reflection but instead down at my chest, still unscarred. I don’t remember how I first discovered the little imperfection, a hard lump at the corner of my left nipple, but I remember every night, prodding it, wondering if it was getting bigger.
At this time, I was interning abroad in Colombia, and I was only 20. Breast cancer wasn’t for people in their 20s, was it? I decided to wait before it got checked out, scouring the internet for non-lethal explanations of a breast lump. I kept poking at it, was that green vein there before? Is it getting bigger?
Eventually I went back to NYC and to a doctor as one breast, at least in my eyes, was starting to grow noticeably larger than the other, the skin looked shinier as if stretched. It had been growing unchecked for two months already, and I had felt it grow from a tiny lump to a small bulge a centimetre or two wide. ‘Not cancer.’ the doctor said. I let go of a breath. ‘You’ll need surgery.’ I drew it back in.
Peeling the bandages off for the first time, the scar was angry, flaky and red. I spent several minutes a day examining it, comparing it to the other from above, in the mirror. Once, a few months later, I asked a friend if he could tell there was a scar there, and he reassured me that any guy who cared was an asshole anyways. But I’m still not quite sure why I notice it, or still think about it now it has faded to a thin white line and the bruise has long since disappeared. I later found out what I had was a Phyllodes tumour, a rapidly growing but usually non-cancerous clump of cells in the connective tissue of the breast. It had grown so quickly and large enough to stretch out the skin, making one areola look larger than the other. A year later, it’s pale and hidden in the natural outline of a brown areola.
It still feels strange to me. Maybe because I had no context by which to understand it. Phyllodes tumours make up less than 1% of breast tumours and normally only affect women above the age of 40. I didn’t have breast cancer, I couldn’t use that narrative to help me understand my experience. I didn’t need to have a mastectomy and it wasn’t cosmetic breast surgery. Calling it breast surgery still makes me feel like I’m implying I had a more serious condition or that I’m vain. Saying tumour just sounds alarmist.
I would occasionally share my experience, but most of the people my age didn’t think of breasts as something that could go wrong, not yet at least. I dreaded having sex in the light afterwards, wondering if someone would take off my bra and ask what happened. Asking about my appearance felt too private and shallow, but I would wonder what they could see.
I don’t know if it affected my sexuality and to care at all makes me feel more ashamed. Aren’t I stronger than that and aren’t my scars supposed to make me more beautiful? The truth is, I’m still conflicted about my breast even though with time it’s becoming more normalised. And that’s O.K.