The #1 Reason I’m Still Alive, or Why You Should Check Stuff Out

I had a mammogram the other day, and it left me a bit shaky. I put a stupid post up about it on Facebook which I kind of regretted because it made everyone rather worried about me for a little while, and there’s no reason really to worry. Not any more. Once, though…

Let me tell you a story.

I was 23 when I started writing my first novel. It may have been terrible, and certainly unfinished, but that novel, quite literally, saved my life. It was about a young guy meditating on the meaning of life and family during the final weeks of his life. He was dying of cancer, and, as I knew nothing about death and dying or about the progression of cancer through the body, I did a lot of research. One book I read said that women, from their early 20s on, should check their breasts regularly. I was 23. I thought I’d give it a go.

There was a lump there, maybe half an inch or so. Right under the nipple. I had no idea if that was normal for me, I’d never felt my breasts before. All I knew was that the left one didn’t have one and the right one did, and I probably should get it checked. I waited a few weeks, you know, to see if it’d go away. It didn’t. (I think I waited until I had reason to go to the doctor again, “Hi Doc, I have a flu I can’t shake and oh please could you check out this lump here?”). My GP was a breast cancer survivor herself, so although she reassured me that at my age it’d only be a cyst and nothing to worry about, she felt a responsibility to make sure, just for her own peace of mind. She sent me off with a referral for a biopsy in a few week’s time.

That biopsy hurt like hell. They took a thumping huge needle and stuck it through my nipple, without any anaesthetic. It came back clear, which was good and done until the surgeon contacted me some months later for a repeat performance. Apparently, back then at least, they couldn’t let strange lumps reside in young women’s breasts without suitable explanations. They wanted another biopsy. I said no. They said “we can just take the whole lump out?” I said “sure!”

I had surgery, a lumpectomy. It hurt, too, because they did it under a local anaesthetic and didn’t always stick to the designed path (yes. Ouch). I was kind of scared to look at the scar, and I still hadn’t taken the dressing off four days later when my surgeon called me into his office at my earliest convenience.

He was very apologetic. It’s cancer, he said. We got it wrong, he said. I asked him about the biopsy, the clear one, and he explained with some blu-tak and coloured paper how there was a cluster of normal cells in the middle of a cancerous mass. It was just a fluke they’d gotten the wrong bit. Just sheer change, you could say, that that biopsy hurt so much that I considered a lumpectomy in the first place.

They booked me in for full surgery as soon as they could, some weeks later. A sectional mastectomy, where they cut out a whack of stuff around where the lump had been, to ensure they hadn’t missed any stray cells. The lump had grown since the initial consultation, not in that mad, aggressive way that you hear of some cancers growing, but it had grown enough to make everybody sure that it needed to come out, and soon. My surgeon briefed me on how they had to remove some lymph nodes from my armpit, that that would be how they’d tell if the cancer had spread further through my body or not, and treatment would progress from there.

My lymph nodes came back with a “shadow” on them. It wasn’t a guarantee that the cancer had metastasised but they weren’t taking any chances. My oncologist arranged six weeks of radiotherapy treatment, and six months of chemotherapy treatment. The chemo would be fairly mild, I was unlikely to lose all my hair, although it did come with a risk of infertility later in life. He referred me on to a fertility specialist, who offered me advice and arranged for me to have my eggs harvested in case they were needed for future pregnancies.

And so life went on. I had radiotherapy, chemotherapy, amazing people who held my hand through the experiences, cooked us dinners, drove us places, called up and left messages on our answering machine to say they were thinking of/praying for us, and hoping everything was “tickety-boo”. (I had that a lot. Apparently tickety-boo is what you say to cancer patients…maybe in the absence of anything else making sense).

I am tickety-boo. I, thank the Lord, have remained so, and cancer-free. I took that for granted for a number of years, that it was a “mild dose”, that I “shook it off”, the way one might shake off a head cold, or a particularly nasty dose of chickenpox. But it’s now, having a mammogram, that I realise how lucky–how blessed–I was, how lucky–how blessed–I AM to be alive still.

1. I’d never checked my breasts before. It had never even occurred to me to do so, and I probably wouldn’t have until I was approaching 50, by which time it would most likely have been too late.

2. My GP doesn’t routinely send young women with breast lumps for biopsies. If it wasn’t for her own experience with cancer she may have reassured me that it was nothing and sent me away.

3. If the biopsy hadn’t been so painful I would have agreed to another one, which may or may not shown any cancer cells again. I don’t know how long my surgeon would have monitored the lump for it it came back clear a second time.

I’m acutely aware of those who have died, for whom the cancer was more aggressive, or didn’t respond to treatment, or for those who just didn’t know until it was too late. Any of these could have been me.

The moral of this story is simple: be aware of your body, and any changes it makes. Check it out. Take it seriously. And…well…if you’ve ever dreamed about doing so, write a novel. You never know, it may save your life.


16 thoughts on “The #1 Reason I’m Still Alive, or Why You Should Check Stuff Out

  1. Oh Megan, I didn’t realize we had all this in common too – I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2011 – had a lumpectomy, then chemo and radiation and for a while all was well. Then on my second mammo after the treatments they discovered a lesion – turns out it was a blood born cancer caused by the radiation. Sigh. They recommended a mastectomy but I didn’t see the point – if it’s in my blood it will only pop up somewhere else. So they removed it and I’m now doing a cancer protocol to fight it in other ways and have felt better than I have in several years – lost almost 30 pounds for one thing. 🙂
    So, my dear, I know from whence you speak. 🙂 Marcia

    • Blood borne cancer caused by radiotherapy? Far out Marcia, I’ve not heard of that! So glad they removed it, and glad the food choices are working out for you too. We had to do a big food-clean-up a few years ago for other reasons, and, like you, I had never felt better. Amazing how much junk we eat without even realizing it.
      Take care, my friend, and thanks for stopping by.

  2. You are one of the bravest people I know megs. Xo you inspire me to know end. Kindest,


    Bernadette Black Founding Director Brave Foundation Councillor; Kingborough Council

    Barnados Australian Mother of the Year, and Finalist Australian of the Year

    Address: PO Box 130 Blackmans Bay, 7052 Phone: 0404060507 ile

    From: Megan Sayer Reply-To: Megan Sayer Date: Saturday, January 4, 2014 8:01 AM To: Bernadette Black Subject: [New post] The #1 Reason Im Still Alive, or Why You Should Check Stuff Out Megan Sayer posted: “I had a mammogram the other day, and it left me a bit shaky. I put a stupid post up about it on Facebook which I kind of regretted because it made everyone rather worried about me for a little while, and there’s no reason really to worry. Not any more. On”

    • Thanks for reading Jessie! Yes, life is so fragile. Sometimes I think that we forget that all too often in this modern living thing, and take our health for granted. Sometimes I wonder how people viewed death in, say, the 1800s. I think we’ve lost a lot in taking life for granted.

  3. I’ve had a breast cyst aspirated, and it did HURT!!! I would have done anything to avoid a re-do. I’m VERY thankful that your doc and the surgeon were so persistent. Very, very glad.

    • Me too Patti! Absolutely. I’m glad you didn’t have to do a re-do. Makes me wonder why, then, that they needed to do one on me? Who knows. I’m still very, very grateful!

  4. (Tried to post a comment earlier but it didn’t seem to take – hope I don’t duplicate!)

    Megan, I am so impressed with your strength and courage. What you wrote will save lives.

    My wife is a cancer survivor – she demanded that her doctors take decisive action when they wanted to ‘wait a bit’.

    I’m kind of at the other end of the spectrum. Likely pancreatic cancer, but I can’t get it checked for progress, much less treated, because I can’t afford health insurance, much less paying for treatment.

    It does put to heart the concept of leaning on the Almighty.

    • Oh Andrew! Oh man, I’m so sorry. I can’t get my head around the American health care system and the injustices it affords people. You’re right, it makes our need to rely on God very, very real. Blessings to you, mate.

  5. Wowzers!! What an amazing an inspirational piece.
    My wonderful cousin Alison Butterworth pointed this post out to me. Amazing!!
    I don’t have breast cancer (at least I don think I do), I have 12 monthly mammograms because of a strong family history & losing my beautiful Mum at just 53 from the horrid disease.
    I’m here to stay, I’m here to watch my daughters grow older than the 21 years that I was when I watched my Mum pass over and I’m here to do what it takes to make sure I do not succumb to the C word. Awareness is key and you’re a star for writing about it xx

    • Veronica that must have been so hard losing your mum at such a young age, I’m so sorry. Glad you’re so diligent with the mammograms. That’s it, awareness is the key. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Wow.Megan.your story is inspiring to say the least 🙂 I had no idea you had been through something so difficult @ such a young age. It’s great you can write about it, & have shared your experience with us, if every survivor was like you imagine the lives they could save.

    Take care


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