The pain and swelling came on suddenly, pretty much out of the blue, on Wednesday, December 19, 2012. I tend to get very slightly tender breasts the week before my period, but this was different. My left breast hurt the way it had when I nursed my three babies and got mastitis and engorgement. I am not pregnant (nor will I ever be again), and the last time I nursed my youngest child was over eighteen months ago. The pain got worse over the next three days. My breast continued to swell, a hard mass developed, and a few lumps could be seen and felt under the skin, which was warm and hot pink. I went through each day waiting for it to go away, ran my errands, went to class, work, appointments and ignored the pain. I was so sure it was nothing and that it would disappear, and I didn’t want to call the doctor unless I had a very good reason.
By midnight on Friday, I had a very good reason: a neon greenish-yellowish discharge oozing out of my nipples. The mass was bigger and harder, the skin around the lumps was puckering, and the pain was so intense it woke me up. I am a very sound sleeper. It is nearly impossible to wake me up. I also have a high pain threshold. I gave birth naturally, without an epidural or pain meds all three times (three-day labor, two-day labor, and twenty-hour labor). I handle pain well. I almost never take pain meds. It’s so ingrained in me not to reach for the pain meds, that it never occurred to me to take something for the pain.
Of course, I had to wait until the Saturday that kicks off the two-week Christmas holiday to decide this needed medical attention. I made an appointment at the Urgent Care Clinic, and I was admitted to the hospital on December 22. My local hospital was understaffed due to the holidays, so we had to drive to another hospital in a different town. The pain was so bad, that I had to support my breast in my arm, and it still hadn’t crossed my mind to take painkillers. (I know. Stupid. Old habits die hard. I don’t like to take drugs.)
We spent the entire day at the hospital. The doctors were very thorough. They ran cultures of that day-glo nipple discharge, ran blood tests and an ultrasound, took their time to get a detailed medical history, and palpated my poor breast so diligently that I cried real tears of pain. They even talked me into taking Ibuprofen (on the house) before they discharged me that night! I had no fever, no signs of infection, no detectable pathogens, and my stats were good. No reason to keep me. They sent me home with prescription-strength paracetamol (acetaminophen/Tylenol), Ibuprofen and penicillin (on the off-chance I had an encapsulated infection the labs had missed).
In case you’re wondering about the penicillin treatment, (I know I was) the standard procedure here is to treat breast lumps as infections first, then if they don’t go away after penicillin, do a proper cancer workup. It’s cost cutting or something, some way of avoiding unnecessary and expensive tests.The doctor who prescribed the meds said that if there still was something there after ten days of treatment, I could start worrying. He did not want to scare me, but he told me to be prepared for the possibility of inflammatory breast cancer. He gave me an urgent referral to the breast clinic, and told me to call them in January when everybody gets back from holiday. Great. I’d have to wait over two weeks. The doctor was very clear about the possibility of breast cancer, so of course, I started FREAKING OUT.