Health Anxiety

A Breast Lump & Health Anxiety

I found a lump in my breast and I have health anxiety. 

I was wiggling out a sports bra – you know the move – and I happened to hit my right breast in just the right way to reveal the aforementioned lump. 

Panic ensued, right there in the bathroom while my tub filled with bubbles for an afternoon soak. As women, we’re told breast lump = breast cancer and down the health anxiety spiral I went.

After a few minutes, I pulled it together and remembered I was about five days from my period and boobs do weird things during our cycle. I calmed down and decided to wait for Aunt Flo to come and go before making my next move. 

I suffer from diagnosed health anxiety, so when my right boob and only my right boob started to hurt a few days later, I panicked once more. I googled. I self-diagnosed. I did all the things my therapist tells me not to do and ignored all the tools he’s given me to help me not do it. 

Add to it that I also had no PCP as I had barely been in Los Angeles six weeks and the panic around this breast lump was real. I did my research, found someone that could see me, and my first meeting with her involved me taking off my shirt and her feeling me up. She assured me it was “hormonal” and advised me to cut back on caffeine and take evening primrose oil to help with fibroglandular breasts. 

If you’ve ever suffered from health anxiety, you know what came next: a nice lull in which all was well and there was no reason to panic. 

That was a good couple of weeks. 

I gave my boobs another feel and that lump was still there. I noted everything about it – how it felt larger at points during my cycle, how the pain felt during said period, how I thought it moved and felt sort of rubbery… And I googled. I googled a lot. 

Google is not your friend, but it’s an especially toxic relationship when you suffer from health anxiety. By the time I went in for the yearly physical I had scheduled for one month after leaving my PCP’s office the first time, I wasn’t willing to hear anything other than “this might be breast cancer, let’s get it checked out ASAP.”

So of course, she said: “This is a cyst and nothing to be concerned about.” She advised re-assessing in three to four months or if I noticed any other concerning changes like the lump getting bigger, skin changes, or my nipple inverting. 

Again, my health anxiety was pacified. 

For about two days. 

Then it started to hurt again. 

I fired off an email to my doctor telling her I’d like to take her up on a mammogram and breast ultrasound right now, please and thank you. She agreed for my own peace of mind and the scans were scheduled – for two and a half weeks later. 

For two and a half weeks, I waffled between being absolutely fine and spiraling hard. I would read forums, search all sorts of combinations of words and debate on what, exactly, was going on in my breast. My doctor replied to my email letting her know I scheduled my scans with a “Thanks for letting me know! Don’t worry – whatever it is, we’ll take care of it,” a perfectly acceptable and caring response, and I broke down, convinced she suspected I had breast cancer. 

My therapist has given me a lot of tools to use when I have these health anxiety spirals, and so I did my best to lean into them. Worry on a Schedule was a frequently used tool in which I put time limits around when I could google scary things. I meditated a lot, went on a lot of walks. This past Friday, when I was completely emotionally exhausted from the waves of health anxiety, I tapped out. As soon as I was finished with work for the day, I put my laptop and phone away and vegged on the couch with gluten-free pizza and Oreos. It was necessary, and I felt like a different (much happier) person come morning. 

I’m a believer in doing whatever YOU need to do to mitigate these moments.

On Tuesday morning, the day of my scans, I was oddly at peace. The day before had been rough, but I did a lot of my CBT work, spent time in meditation and prayer, and if I sat and really thought about it, I knew in my gut things would be okay, regardless of the outcome. 

That peace went right out the escape hatch moments before the mammogram. 

Things started off fine. I got there early – in L.A. traffic! – and checked in. They called me back, I changed, and a sweet tech came to get me. I was okay. I was ready. But something about being in the mammogram room caused a full fledged, short-lived panic attack to occur out of nowhere. It was over within the minute and I bucked it up and got real intimate with the machine. 

Ever had a mammogram? 

I’m here to tell you they aren’t as bad as you may have heard, but they certainly aren’t the most fun you will ever have. I’m small chested and found the positions they put me in to be the most uncomfortable part, even more so than the squishing of the boobs. They took two images of each breast, then sent me to wait while the radiologist looked over them to determine if more images were needed. I prayed there wouldn’t be. 

There would be more images required. 

The radiologist requested an additional image on each side and I was sure it was because the news was bad. The tech assured me it was only because they had nothing else to compare it to, but I wasn’t in a place to hear that. I knew what I knew, trained radiology tech that I am.

Images taken. On to the ultrasound. 

I was scheduled for just the right breast, so imagine where my brain went when they decided to do both. This tech was also lovely though and assured me that it was because my PCP had identified a cyst on the left side as well (she had but I couldn’t feel it myself and was therefore 100% not worried about it – health anxiety logic, I tell you) and they just wanted to get a look at it. By the time she was finished with the ultrasound, I was rather relaxed once more.

And then the doctor came in. 

Anxiety cranked right back up the meter.

The first thing out of her mouth? 

“Everything is fine.” 

Everything is fine. 

The breast lump I felt was no more than an “island of dense tissue.” I have fibroglandular breasts and dense breast tissue, all normal and very common. As for the pain I was experiencing, it was likely hormonal and, insert pointed look from the doctor here, irritated from touching it constantly. Barring any new discoveries or changes, there’s no need for me to return until annual screenings at the age of 40.

Relief followed. 

Except, I have health anxiety, remember? 

I did go home and very briefly google “breast cancer missed by mammogram and ultrasound” before I caught myself. I’ve had all the testing. I’ve talked to the doctor. Another doctor reviewed my images before they sent them to my doctor who also reviewed them. They all agreed: I’m fine. My boobs are fine

Throughout this two-and-a-half month ordeal, I got really frustrated with my health anxiety. I tell my therapist it’s like I can step outside of my body and see myself spiraling. I know I’m doing it, but I can’t stop myself. It’s infuriating to me as someone who loves to be in control. He tells me this is a good thing. It means I’m recognizing my patterns and getting quicker at interrupting them. “Catching a thought” as I like to call it. And he’s right. My anxiety spirals are shorter and I can pull myself out of them faster. But when you’re in the midst of it? It’s not so fun. 

I want to share more about my health anxiety and the way it can manifest when I least expect it. You will see more posts from time to time as I continue to navigate life with it lurking in the background, always ready to pounce. Health anxiety isn’t talked about enough and when it is, it is docked as “in your head” and the word “hypochondriac” (which isn’t even the correct clinical word now) gets tossed around as a joke. So I’m going to talk about it because I know I’m not the only person out there that suffers from health anxiety. 

I’m thankful my diagnosis was benign. Something I learned while going through this is that the overwhelming majority of breast lumps are benign. While breast cancer is one of the most-diagnosed cancers among women, most lumps are dense tissue, cysts, or fibroadenomas among other benign conditions. I found comfort in that and I hope others will as well. 

With my health anxiety, I can go months without a flare up and I’m hoping for a good stretch of peace now. I hadn’t had an episode in years until my kidney stone in June 2020 kicked off a few months of ebbs and flows which had settled for several months until Sports Bra Gate. That’s the thing with health anxiety though – you never know when it’s going to show up. And when it does… It’s a hard guest send packing.

But when you finally kick it out the door?

It feels damned good.

Here’s to hoping it takes a long hiatus between visits.  

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