I first found the lump in my breast eighteen months ago in the shower. It was a Monday morning and I remember coming across something while washing under my arm. I say ‘something’ because to call it a lump wouldn’t really be accurate, it was more of an area of thickening. I had never made a point of checking my breasts (unless you can call giving them a once over in the mirror ‘checking’ – believe me I had good boobs!) so I guess you could say I was lucky to discover something was wrong.
Being super fit and healthy I hadn’t joined a GP surgery since moving to London from the North East. I knew this change in my breast needed checking out but in my mind it was nothing serious, just a box to tick to get the news it was just a cyst. Having no GP I went to a drop in centre, and as I sat on the bed the nurse told me she couldn’t feel anything. “It’s here,” I said, clutching my left breast.
“Well, let’s do this properly then, lie down.”
“Let’s do this properly? Really? Do we have to? God, you’re a real stickler for the rules, lady.”
Typing this now I can’t believe a health professional actually said that to me. On further examination the nurse concluded she could feel something but told me that it was probably hormonal and that I should go and see my GP if it hadn’t gone by the end of my next period, three whole weeks away.
Strangely enough this woman didn’t fill me with confidence so I went to register at my local GP’s surgery. However, despite this practice being the nearest one to my flat, the receptionist informed me that my street was on the wrong side of the road to be able to join. When I explained that the NHS website had stated that I was eligible to become a patient there she left her seat, I assumed, to get the relevant forms for me to fill in. Instead she returned with a map and a highlighter pen. She then went on to expertly colour in the road where the boundary was.
“I really need an appointment.” I pleaded, conscious of the queue building up behind me.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked, apparently considering cutting through the red tape if faced with a serious enough complaint. Tears started to fill in my eyes and my throat contracted as I felt obliged to air my private concerns in front of the eight people now waiting.
“I’ve found a lump in my breast.”
“Well you can’t join here,” came the reply, “you’ll have to find somewhere else.”
Apparently a possible case of breast cancer was deemed not significant enough to bend the boundary rules, so off I went to joining a GP’s surgery that was further away from my flat but devoid of a highlighter-wielding Nazi. The GP was a lovely bloke and got me straight to the one-stop clinic at a hospital where within a few hours I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the grand old age of 27. Boos all round.
Anyhoo, my point is that despite the vast amounts spent publicising breast cancer, young women with the disease are frequently misdiagnosed or fobbed off simply due to their youth. The other day I met up with the remarkable Kris Hallenga, founder of breast cancer charity CoppaFeel, who had an even more shocking experience of this kind of prejudice.
In 2008 Kris, then 22, went to her GP with a lump in her breast. She had a family history of breast cancer, but the doctor told her she was fine and that the lump was probably down to her being on the pill. Six months on and the lump had gotten bigger. Kris returned to her GP’s surgery, this time seeing another doctor. This particularly helpful chap told Kris he didn’t need to examine her because she’d been examined six months ago.
Kris’ mum insisted that she be referred to hospital and a biopsy showed she did indeed have breast cancer. A subsequent bone scan showed a tumour on her spine, meaning that Kris had secondary cancer and that it was incurable. She will never know if the cancer spread in those eight months that she waited to be referred.
When I tell friends I’ve met with Kris their first question is usually along the same lines as my brother’s immediate response on hearing her story. ‘Did she sue the fuck out of them?”
And the answer is no.
“I didn’t pursue any legal routes because I didn’t want to waste my time on these two stupid doctors. I wanted them to hear about my successes and how well I was doing in newspapers and TV when I’d managed to get the charity off the ground. That way I could reach lots of people instead of making two doctors bitter and angry, who hopefully regret that day for the rest of their lives anyway. And I wanted to take a positive approach and pursuing legal stuff is not exciting or fun!”
Kris could have ploughed her energy into a long, drawn out legal case, and let’s face it who could have blamed her for doing so? But instead she set up CoppaFeel, a charity aimed at 18-30 year-olds whose slogan is ‘knowing your boobs can save your life.’ Kris is doing what her doctors should have done and ensuring that young women are smart about their health. Who knows, she’s probably saving lives.
How many of us have found ourselves in a situation where someone has wronged us and we want revenge? Now, how many of us can say we took that shitty situation and turned it into a positive?
As you can tell from the blog I have been somewhat hung up on the two doctors who gave me months to live. I hope to learn from Kris and let go of the ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs’ just get on with living the best life possible.
Check out CoppaFeel! here