Of all the 28 risk factors for getting breast cancer, as listed on this website: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors, realistically four apply to me.
1. Being a woman but since, and I quote from the internet, “changing your sex to reduce your risk of breast cancer is not a realistic or reasonable possibility”, there’s nothing to be done or said about that.
2. First period before the age of 12.
I remember the evening I got my first period. I’ll save any reader the gory details of that episode but when my mother announced,
“Oh love you’ve got your period!”,
I sobbed into her shoulder for a long time. Today I name my childish feelings “disbelief” and “disgust” at the very idea that firstly, this bleeding had a name and secondly, that it seemed to be normal. I was ten years old, (and a half judging by the darkness outside and the lit fire that I sat beside all that evening.)
2. Dense breasts
That very same evening of the first period episode and after my mother teaching me the mechanics of hygienic care, I received a crash course from my father on “the facts of life”. I sat down at the kitchen table and on the back of an envelope, he proceeded to draw two small circles with pipes coming out of them, which both lead down to a bigger oval further down. It was a diagram of the female reproductive system apparently. It looked like a rams head with horns to me! There was a mention of eggs and ovaries and babies and male and female mice. I HAD NO IDEA WHAT MY FATHER WAS ON ABOUT! I wanted to go back to my Lego house designs.
But sure enough, everything my father talked about that night, slowly started to unfold, the monthly periods and all that. My interest in Lego houses declined, and I paid more attention to my growing breasts and boys.
The genes for adolescent hormones were well and truly switched on at that stage and they were expressing the familiar changes in a growing girl’s body. Amongst them were the developing breasts, which kept growing and growing and then growing some more. When were they going to cease taking on their fullness? I stopped athletic running with the pain caused by their annoying jiggling. And what’s more, they swelled even more every month before the period.
Dense breasts I was blessed with and dense breasts have been my on-off friends for thirty years. So dense, they hid the growing cancer from my regular palpating fingers. So dense, they hid the cancer even from the first imaging (ultrasound) test I did and from the mammogram and even the fine needle biopsy. I and Carlos and even the gynecologist were beginning to wonder if the confirmed cancer in the lump under my arm could be coming from elsewhere in my body. I never thought it possible to be hoping for breast cancer and that it would be good news at that.
4. Age of giving birth to first child greater than 30 years.
Pablo, my first-born, arrived on the 13 th of October 2007 and I was was aged 31 years and 5 months. I remember well my exact age because not long afterwards my father read out the statistic about the average age Irish women gave birth for the first time: 31 years and 5 months.
An average statistic for an average girl I say. There’s nothing wrong with being average. It’s safe to belong to the masses of normality. Discovering breast cancer at 39 is against the odds, which depending on the website you read and the year published, the chances are 1 in quite a high number. So all of a sudden, I have deviated from being healthily normal and joined the thousands of young and younger women around the world who are diagnosed annually with breast cancer into a different kind of reality.
Amidst my frenzied panic at the beginning, to the forefront, literally, of my mind was the question,
It’s almost as if with the pang of each strained headache, the words came pelting across my forehead, why me, why me?
Each woman I saw on the street, more overweight than me, why not her? For each cigarette I saw perched on a passerby’s lips, why not them? Why not the drug addicts or the winos, the hormone pushers or someone older? I’m young, I’m healthy, I’ve always done all the “right” things so why the hell me? Who’s out there to answer me that? Who will explain in plain English why I got breast cancer at age 39? I have a young family to rear, I need all my strength and energy for them. This is not fair. Life is not fair.
Unlike many people in such circumstances, who prefer to deal with their journey with an illness in private, I have felt a compelling need to tell people, to connect, to reach out. People have unknowingly offered their interpretations of this illness, which I have listened to in an attempt to build up some kind of sense.
Nieves maintains the whole earth is contaminated, from the soil which nourishes our fruit and vegetables and grains, to the water we drink, to the air we breathe. According to her it’s impossible to avoid. It made me wonder why we all didn’t have cancer.
Someone very dear to my heart mentioned that it could be a manifestation of my unhappiness at being in a foreign city. I didn’t think I was that unhappy, permanently exhausted yes, but unhappy enough to warrant breast cancer?
Then my sister-in-law Esther said something, which rattled me at first, but it stayed with me and it has persisted with me ever since. “This had to come,” she said, “and only good things can come from it.”
I’ve given up asking, “why me?” and I’ve taken to asking “why not me?”.
This has shaken up my life, my mind (and hence the blogging), my memories and my reality. Esther was referring to grace from God. I don’t really, deeply, comprehend it but somehow I don’t think it’s for me to get my mind around. I will lay back and rest my muscles with the thought and let its meaning slowly be absorbed.