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It’s Not Cancer, It’s Just Breastfeeding

Photograph by Twenty20

It's probably the most terrifying ten minutes of your life. You're alone in an exam room. You wipe the ultrasound goop off your chest. You slowly put your clothes back on. You tell yourself to breathe. Breathe! You're not breathing. You try very hard to calm your racing mind. And you wait for a doctor to walk in and tell you whether or not you have breast cancer.

You can't help but reach under your shirt to feel that strange lump you found a few weeks ago for the millionth time. It feels hard and slightly painful and undeniably there. It's a lump. In your breast. You tell yourself it's not cancer. It's definitely not cancer. Or if it is cancer, it's not a really hopeless kind of cancer. Women survive it. Strong women. Brave women. Badass warrior women who kick cancer's ass. You tell yourself you can be that kind of woman if you have to. You look at the clock—again. You fiddle with your phone. You look at pictures of your toddler, but that reminds you that you might have cancer, and how would you explain that to a two-year-old, and you need to stay calm! Breathe!

And then the doctor walks in and says: "Everything looks okay." And you sort of collapse with relief for a few seconds. And you finally take a real breath. And you feel this overwhelming rush of gratitude and love for everything in your life. Even tantrums. Even potty training. I don't have cancer! I don't have cancer! But the doctor is talking, so you attempt to pay attention.

"Were you recently breastfeeding?" she asks.

"I stopped breastfeeding about eight months ago."

"Oh, well that makes sense," she says.

"Um, it does?"

The rest of this conversation is pretty much a blur of medical-sounding words going by, since "I don't have cancer" was the only thing my brain could really process. So, I followed up a few weeks later with my UCLA radiologist to get some more facts.

She explained that the lump I was feeling was not a big cyst. It was not a benign growth. It was not anything I had ever heard of before. It was actually very dense breast tissue caused by breastfeeding. Wait, what?!

I had to ask her to repeat this a few times, because THINGS NO ONE EVER TELLS YOU ABOUT HAVING BABIES!

Breasts go through a lot of hormonal changes during pregnancy and lactation. (Um yeah, I kind of noticed that.) One of those changes can be that active breast tissue gets denser and more robust (i.e. harder), becoming more pronounced in comparison to the fatty tissue in your breast. Basically, it feels like a lump.

I had to ask her to repeat this a few times, because THINGS NO ONE EVER TELLS YOU ABOUT HAVING BABIES! Good Lord! My list gets longer by the day.

I also quizzed lactation consultant and nurse practitioner, Jessica Sacher about my experience, who told me not to get down on my weirdly dense pair of boobs.

"Dense breast tissue is a good thing," Sacher shares. "Women who have it tend to make more milk. They also tend to have a higher instance of cysts."

Great. More things that feel like cancer!

Jessica reminded me about all the other delightful things that can happen to your breasts during and after breastfeeding: calcification, plugged ducts, milk cysts, abscesses due to mastitis. (Oh the joy of motherhood!) Not to mention the sagging, the stretch marks, the odd-looking nipples, etc. These can be sad and creepy and sometimes very painful, but they are also not cancer. You know... perspective!

But Sacher got serious about young women making sure to have every single breast lump checked out immediately and thoroughly by a breast specialist. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an increase in the incidence of advanced breast cancer among women aged 25–39 over the past three decades. Young, healthy women, under 40, with no family history of the disease can—and—do get breast cancer. Without an ultrasound or a mammogram and possibly a biopsy, there's just no way to know.

Which brings me back to those horrible ten minutes in the exam room. I will probably have to endure them again. Most of us will. But if you're a mom who recently stopped nursing, at least you can sit there and tell yourself, "I probably just have super dense, hard-working, rock star mama boobs."

And remember to breathe!

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