Trust Your Gut

How shopping for a bra saved one woman’s life.

by Christine Petrillo

People always tell you to trust your instincts. My instincts have certainly helped me navigate through some of life’s challenges: relationships, job changes, etc.  I was never more grateful that I went with my gut than when I came upon a lump in my breast last summer.

I am 43 years old and recovering from breast cancer. I was diagnosed in September 2009 and had surgery October 1st. With a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy treatments and a total breast reconstruction behind me, I am embracing my new role in life as a survivor. While my story may not be all that unique, I believe it is a valuable one that if shared, may save the lives of others.

I was a "mature bride," marrying at 41 for the first time. My husband and I were eager to start a family. Because of our age, immediately after the honeymoon we began infertility treatments. While in the midst of the physical and emotional roller coaster that is any infertility program, I put off having my annual gynecological check ups. My goal and focus was on getting pregnant and I had not considered anything else.

While trying on a new bra, I came across a lump in my left breast. The bra had a new design where the clasp was under my armpit. As I struggled with the closure, I kept rubbing against a hard knot-like bump on the upper outer corner of my breast. I didn’t panic at first. We’d been doing the hormone shots for 18 months and I assumed it was just typical tenderness, a symptom of the drugs. But the more I rubbed, the more concerned I grew.

My nature as a salesperson is to be a little pushy (that is very hard for me to write as I like to consider it professionally aggressive) but nonetheless, I pushed myself onto my gynecologist’s schedule for that morning. Maybe she was annoyed that she had to fit me in, maybe I was overreacting but after a quick manual breast exam she shrugged and dismissed me, saying she didn’t feel anything. I was even a little embarrassed having insisted she see me right away. I asked if she was sure because I really felt something and she said, yes, she didn’t feel a thing. I sheepishly asked if I could get a prescription written for an ultrasound. Her reply: “I’ll give you the ‘scrip’ but there’s nothing there.”

I remember hopping off the table and getting dressed slowly, confused by emotions. I should have been relieved. My doctor had just told me my worst fear was nothing. She didn’t feel a thing! But as I got dressed I could still feel the lump. I argued with myself… the doctor said….and she’s a professional. That’s good enough for me. I even went to a Yankee game that night with my husband and after telling him what had happened earlier that day, we both felt like we dodged a bullet and breathed a big sigh of relief.

I woke the next morning expecting to feel more relieved but while in the shower, I kept rolling my fingers over this lump again and again. I was off to work with the prescription still in my bag. Once in the office, the work flow took over. Could I really tear myself away for an hour or so? That nagging voice inside of me said to just go and put my mind at ease. I could have easily ignored that voice as the day’s work piled up but I gave in and made an appointment for later that morning.

I am so glad I did.

The radiologist began her exam, stopping to take measurements and digital pictures. It was as though she wanted to distract me from the focusing on the screen, asking about how we were doing with the whole fertility thing and that she had actually gotten pregnant by the same doctor we were seeing. It seemed like fate brought us together on this day, only it was not to share success stories of our infertility woes. She announced she was done with the sonogram and told me she wanted to do a biopsy. I began to get up and get dressed again thinking we’d have to schedule that for another day. That’s when she told me I needed to stay, that she wanted to do it now. She gave me a clean gown and asked if I wanted to call my husband.

It was in that moment that I knew. I did not have to wait for the pathology reports. I knew. She didn’t have to say the words but I knew. It was one of those moments when you feel frozen in time. I was wishing my instincts were wrong.

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