When I was 11, I felt a lump in my breast. I didn't tell my mom until I was 12 because I didn’t want to deal with it.
"It wasn’t that big of a deal."
But one Thursday in April 2001, I decided to casually tell her.
While we were lying in her bed watching television, I very simply said, “I think I have a lump in my teta. Is that normal?” (Teta is a somewhat crass Spanish word for breast.)
My mom calmly asked, "May I feel it?"
After a few seconds of light exploration, she said, "No, honey. We'll have to go to the doctor."
I was so annoyed at myself for bringing it up.
My mom very calmly shook her head, and we went back to watching television.
There have been a lot of moments in my life where I have known my mom has been lying to protect me.
In this moment, she played her greatest role. Her nonchalance eased my mind.
I, unlike her, had no idea what had just started.
Now, in 2015, she sits across from me with tears subtly welling up in her eyes.
She describes this moment as the ultimate lesson from her higher power.
The day before my revelation, she’d learned a fix to her car would cost $5,000.
It was money she absolutely didn’t have, and so, she cried.
On that Thursday, her Wednesday money tears were now nonsensical.
She says definitively that she has never cried about money since.
In 2001, things moved quickly.
On Friday, less than 24 hours later, I would find myself in my pediatrician’s office, seeing a female alternative to my normally male doctor.
Separately, my mother would speak to her boss of less than month, and offer to resign her new promotion.
She felt a demotion would be best in light of the fact that, under the circumstances, she would not be able to do her new job to the best of her abilities. She knew what was ahead.
Her boss would instead give her a laptop and tell her to do her best, be in the office when she could and keep him updated.
My female pediatrician was lovely, gentle and ultimately irresolute, recommending we seek out a gynecologist.
At the time, she didn’t have one, so my mother opened up our insurance’s list of gynecologists, who echoed the stock answer: six to eight weeks for a new patient.
After phone calls in the double digits, she found an office that would allow a nurse practitioner to see me on Monday.
The practitioner was cold.
She treated me like a specimen, and spoke to us in clinical terms.
After she felt my breast, she very nonchalantly said the lump was most likely liquid.
But a test was needed to determine definitively. She then added, “It’s super rare to see breast cancer in kids this young. But it’s possible.”
No one had said it before this moment, and she threw it away like it was the lightest word in the English language.
I never thought about cancer.
As we left the office, I kept my stiff upper lip, while picturing my good friend Julia’s mom.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer when we were in first grade.
Julia stayed with us often.
In the fleeting moments when I saw her mother, she looked utterly wrecked, and I often wondered when she’d die.
Sometimes, she looked closer than others. That was cancer.
It all hit me. This was my fault. I should have said something sooner.
"Of course I have cancer. How could I be so silly?"
When the car door slammed, I cried in the parking lot.
I cried the kind of full body tears that come from your depths, and leave you exhausted in seconds. This is the kind of tears my mother probably cried after I left her room last Thursday night.
As I refused to go back to the nurse practitioner, my mother revisited the insurance list, cold-calling doctors and finding endless closed doors.
After racking up the double digits once more, she reached a breathy, gum-chewing receptionist:
"She's how old?"
"Oh, ma'am. You need to hold on," the receptionist demanded.
The simple of act of putting my mother on hold was the brightest flicker of hope in the dark dead ends.
When the receptionist returned, she relayed a message from a doctor in the practice: "We’d need to call a breast specialist."
Now, as my mom speaks about this phone call, her emotions get the best of her once more.
She describes it as the first sense of real compassion during the storm.
That doctor, who took two minutes out of her day to point us in the right direction, would deliver my little brother 11 years later.
Referral in hand, two weeks later, we headed in the right direction.
We had since learned from the tactless nurse practitioner the lump was solid, which was the more threatening of the two options.
All I could think of was cancer.
For the past few weeks, I would feel my left breast every day.
I knew this lump in extreme detail.
The breast specialist was a man. He was kind and kind of cute, but that didn’t make the process of removing the sheet from my pre-pubescent chest in front of him any less horrible.
As he felt my breast, he asked if he could bring in a colleague.
I, of course, said yes. I didn’t feel I was in a position to say no anymore.
At this point, doctors, nurses and mammogram specialists of both genders and varying ages had all seen and touched both my breasts.
What was another one?
A month ago, no one had seen my breasts since I was a toddler, running naked through the house while my mother begged me to put on clothing.
Now, at age 12, they were on display for any doctor who wanted in.
My mother calmly watched, asked questions and took notes close by.
They would need to take a sample of the tissue, and could do it right then and there.
My mom asked if I wanted her to hold my hand.
I said, “No. I’m fine,” with my stiff upper lip. I would not be upset in public.
That sh*t was on lockdown, no matter how scared I was.
But my mother rebounded.
“Well, let me hold it for me then because I want to.”
With her hand in mine, I closed my eyes, felt a small pinch and then, it was over.
I’d see multiple doctors in varying counties over the next few months.
I’d learn I had a fibroadenoma, a non-cancerous tumor that would need to be removed.
Because my breasts were still growing, they wanted to wait until I developed more to remove it, unless it started to grow.
We made arrangements to take it out the following year in April.
But the tumor had other plans.
In November 2001, it tripled in size. At 13, I removed it.
At 15, the tumor returned. I had it removed once more.
The details and dates are irrelevant now.
Sometimes, I even forget.
That is, until I feel the scar tissue left behind in my breast. Time has a way of lightening the load, but some scars stay stuck.
I remember asking my mom if I would die. I remember the feeling of the hospital room, and I remember the table specifically.
I felt like a piece of meat on it.
As I close my eyes, I flash back to that Thursday in April, when I asked my mother a question I knew the answer to.
“Is it normal?”
I knew it wasn’t normal, but I didn’t want to deal with it.
A good friend recently said, “It’s funny you mention this, because a friend of mine just found a lump. She said the same thing. She doesn’t want to deal with it right now, so she hasn’t seen a doctor yet.”
My heart dropped. I wasn’t just a silly 12-year-old.
This is something we all feel.
It’s easier not to think about it. It’s easier not to deal with it.
But we must.
I don't have a solution. I don't know how we tell girls as young as 11 to check themselves, or the best way to handle things if they discover a lump. I don’t know what to tell anyone, because it's hard to deal with.
My only hope is we try.
If it’s been more than three years since a doctor felt you up, get your breasts to an office and let a professional in on that action.
We're all grown-ass women who need to start dealing with things.