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Taking Charge Of Your Health

Author: Lauren Coleman

In June I began working from home five days a week. I adopted a position for most of the day which I know an ergonomic assessor would have had a fit about. Intermittently over the summer I developed a pain under my arm and through my breast which would disappear almost as quickly as it came. When the weather grew colder I moved into the snug and started to use my desk and for several months the pain seemed to have disappeared. Then in December it came back with a vengeance.

I’m sure there are all times we’ve felt failed by the NHS, an undiagnosed sinus condition in my early twenties is definitely one of these times. Thankfully I’ve had an altogether much more positive experience more recently.

Nurse appointments are quite difficult to come by at my surgery but I’m very lucky to be able to get an appointment the same day with a doctor. While I know breast pain is unlikely to be anything too untoward, this was my mum’s only symptom when she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in October 2015. I wasn’t taking any chances and willingly whipped off my top to be throughly examined by the doctor with a female nurse present. I felt a bit flustered but was pleased my condition was taken seriously.

The medical professionals didn’t think the lumpy mass they could feel was anything to be concerned about and I was told to relax and enjoy Christmas. I left that day with a referral in the system to the two week breast clinic at my hospital feeling quite emotional yet reassured. Over the next few days the pain increased; I couldn’t sleep on my left side and my arm felt numb and tingly, then it moved to my leg, then across my back, ribs and shoulder. On Becky’s advice I called 111. They were concerned I was having heart problems and sent me back to my GP to be hooked up to an ECG.

Once again the GP (a different one this time) was calm and approachable. He acknowledged the situation was stressful and diagnosed the additional pain as anxiety related. I hadn’t realised I was distressed about the situation. Yes it was playing on my mind but so were a heap of other things too, however it seems the combination of the mental anguish manifested itself in physical pain.

Due to the Christmas holidays and over subscribed resources it was about three weeks before I got to see the consultant. I spent two hours at my local hospital first being examined, then having an ultrasound, then back to the consultant for the results. As James and I sat in the waiting room, watching husbands being called into the room where their wives were being delivered news, memories of the day my Mum received her diagnosis came flooding back to me. I was very positive about my own situation but that day in autumn 2015 was the most terrifying of my life and it was no wonder I had felt anxious about the circumstances.

Thankfully they had just found several cysts and uneven tissue, and the original soreness was diagnosed as rib pain. The anxiety cramps disappeared soon after and thanks to acupuncture and mindfulness exercises the rib pain has also dissipated.

The purpose of this post was not to go into detail about my medical history, but to bring awareness to the screening programmes and guidelines that are in place to support with our lady bits (and beyond actually as I made use of the two-week skin clinic last year too to get various moles investigated).

I’ve never gone topless on the beach and I am very self conscious about having skin on show so I can sympathise with why some people would feel embarrassed about baring all, however these medical professionals HAVE SEEN IT ALL, thousands and thousands of times over. I realised it was perhaps a bit narcissistic to think they would be bothered about my own anatomy and I employ the same thought process about my smear test. My sister told me she’d recently had a conversation with someone who had ‘better things to do with her time than have a smear’. While I can think of more comfortable places I could lie with my legs akimbo I can’t think of a better way to spend three minutes of my day than potentially saving my life, and in my last one I had a jolly informative conversation with my nurse too. The NHS is stretched but these clinics, tests and procedures can help prevent far more costly cancer treatment later on down the line.

Ladies, get those breasts examined if you feel anything untoward and get your cervix screened when the letter comes through. There’s no need to be embarrassed. As we celebrate International Women’s Day and all that it is to be women, there’s something incredibly empowering about taking charge of your health.

For information on what to expect from a breast clinic appointment visit Breast Cancer Care.

Lauren likes Paris, Prosecco and Paint Charts
Follow Lauren on instagram @mrslaurencoleman

41 thoughts on “Taking Charge Of Your Health

  1. Hear hear! A very good post and reminder, Lauren, that we should all pay attention to our health! I am very glad that your story turned out the way it did and that you were taken seriously with your concerns.

  2. Well said Lauren 🙌 I am sending the link to this post straight to one of my friends who refuses to have a smear x

    1. Nooooooooo. she must go! I saw a funny post on Facebook written by a nurse about what she is thinking about when giving you a smear (Clue: its nothing to do with how weird your bits look). Its a few minutes of embarassment and mild discomfort at worst – going to the dentist is worse in my opinion. I had some abnormal cells removed 10 years ago and imagine if I was sitting now at age 40, with 2 kids with cervival cancer because I didn’t act. Or worse, not here. Scary.

  3. This post couldn’t be more appropriate for me! I’ve been suffering from pain in my left breast for 2 or 3 weeks now and having checked for lumps (none) and reading the NHS website on these symptoms have put it down to just hormones. However, this morning I decided it’s time to visit the doctor as it’s still sore. Then I read your post and hearing about your mum has given me even more reason to not keep putting it off as I have been. Thank you!

    1. Heidi, I’m so glad this post has prompted you to take action. It’s more than likely to be no cause for alarm. I was pleased to get some advice on how to deal with the pain rather than just putting up with it. Best of luck x

  4. Great to raise awareness of the importance and screening and of not being embarrassed to see a GP even if its a problem that needs an intimate examination – we have honestly seen it all before in every shape/size etc and are just there to help. A really great article to share.
    I must say though I’m disappointed to read that “I’m sure there are all times we’ve felt failed by the NHS”. I think meaning to say we’ve all been failed as if it’s an inevitability? Nope, I’ve had great care, free at the point of service. Ok, I might be biased 😉 but it’s sad to see insidious NHS bashing creeping in and I’m sad to hear to you had a problem with your sinuses but it’s a shame you feel this generalises to everyone having had a bad service. It is an amazing institution that we are so lucky to have Xxx

    1. Hi Becky, apologies for the way this came across it was meant to highlight how amazing I thought the NHS were in this individual instance definitely not to bash them, and also to highlight the guidelines that are in place to help treat us.
      We are exceptionally lucky to have them and when I think about the small amount of tax I have paid over the years to fund them, we get so much more out of them than we put in.

      1. You’re so right Lauren, we’re so lucky to have these great screening programmes and it’s brilliant that you’re using your experiences to help encourage others to use them xx

  5. Well done Lauren. This is such an important story to share. We all have our own stories, our own experiences but often (of course through our own choice) keep them to ourselves. How easy it is to bury those feelings of doubt, of concern. Because the moment we acknowledge there might be something wrong, is the moment it can all change.
    I am so pleased your diagnosis was not malicious and I’m proud of you for taking the initiative to get it checked, despite your heightened anxiety because of your Mum’s own diagnosis.
    I feel a slight kinship to you. I too had an undiagnosed sinus problem in my early twenties which I only really made headway with because I took some initiative and made some changes to my diet to cut out milk and most dairy. I also had breast pain for months, developing scar tissue and had a similar waiting time to you as I went in for an ultrasound. Turns out it was a pulled muscle from six months prior. Yes it’s scary, yes the result, if malicious, could be putting you on an incredibly terrifying, life-changing journey. But the support is there, the specialists are there and it’s only through talking about it, acknowledging it and facing up to it can we move forward and help each other.

    1. Oh Lucy so sorry to hear you’ve been through similar circumstances.
      I spent most of my early twenties feeling I’d swallowed razor blades and felt I was at my GP’s surgery all the time. After several years I finally got to see a consultant and ended up with an endoscopy and within five minutes I was diagnosed and had a treatment plan. It was such a huge relief! I too find cutting down on dairy has been effective and drinking lots more water.
      I hope your breast pain has subsided now x

  6. Yes to all of this. Have to say that I did put off my first smear but when I did eventually go, the nurse actually thanked me for coming because so many women don’t. I would also say speak up and talk about it more – I had nothing to compare my first experience to but on mentioning it to few people, including other NHS staff, I realised that the pain I had experienced afterwards was not normal. I went for my second routine smear yesterday and mentioned it to the nurse – what a difference it made. Yes it was slightly uncomfortable but nowhere near what I had experienced first time round. Speak up, take control, get screened – like you say Lauren, a few moments of embarrassment or slight discomfort is worth it for peace of mind.

    1. I think it took about three weeks to get my results this time Jo and previously it’s been about a week. The nurse mentioned they’ve had so many more ladies booking smears recently (hopefully due to the smear for smear campaign) so I like to think there are lots more results in the system for them to process at the moment. So glad your second experience was much better than the first.

  7. Hear hear! It always baffles me when people avoid smear tests. My first ever smear aged 21 came back abnormal which led to a biopsy which diagnosed pre cancerous cells. These were lasered off and I had an annual smear for TEN years! All of these were clear so I’m now on the normal 3 year cycle but I dread to think what would happen if I hadn’t been..

    It’s also really important to be aware of things that are in your genes as such. My Mum has had skin cancer twice so my sister and I always get moles checked. And both my Mum and sister have had the same pre cervical cancer cells, although my sister’s came later in life than mine.. we both have girls of our own now and I’m really pleased they’ll have a vaccine when they’re older that seems to be having a positive effect.

    Happy International Woman’s Day all! And I’m glad you’ve been given the all clear Lauren.

    1. It’s interesting that the age of smears differs depending on your CCG. I was still registered in Sheffield when I was 21 so had my first smear then while a lot of my friends in Northamptonshire were 25 before they had their first one.
      It must have been terrifying to get your first results back but thank goodness you had that smear then.
      Happy International Women’s Day to you too!

  8. I have to say, my experience was a little different to this. I remember asking a GP to examine me at 18, expecting that he would be totally used to seeing body parts all day. He tried to usher me out of the room, telling me to book an appointment with a female GP. I made it clear that I had no problem being examined by him and really didn’t want to wait any longer, so a female nurse came in as a chaperone and he examined me. He couldn’t look me in the eye for the remainder of the appointment. I had been fine with it until that point because he clearly wasn’t.

    I’ve never had a smear test either. I have been reading more lately about the number of unnecessary treatments on cells which would not have become cancerous and the risks of having them. I’m not sure where I stand on this but it worries me that women are patronised when making decisions about their health. They can be informed decisions, not made through embarrassment. The reason I haven’t had a smear isn’t embarrassment but fear at the thought of anybody touching me while I’m vulnerable or having any sort of control over my body. Both of my births were difficult and just the thought of things being done to me outside of my control makes me feel panicked and angry.

  9. That’s it, the smear for smear campaign! I don’t wear lipstick and don’t see what it has to do with whether I choose to take up medical screening. It makes me cringe that somebody would think I would be swayed by a campaign because it has lipstick in it (obviously not personally aimed at me). I want reassurance and real statistics I can trust to make an informed choice – not stupid selfies.

    1. Sorry you’ve had such a negative experience Jade.
      For me, the campaign wasn’t about lipstick it was about raising awareness and prompting me to act on the letter that had come through the door a week earlier.

    2. I have to agree with you Jade – I don’t like that campaign either. Whilst I’ve always booked in my smears as soon as I’ve received the screening letter, I just don’t get that whole lipstick smear thing, and how they think it’ll make those who feel anxious about cervical screening, pick up the phone and book an appointment. It does absolutely nothing for me either i’m afraid.

  10. I’ve had identical breast pain issues like you over the past 3 years – been to the breast clinic twice and fortunately both times it was all fine. The 2nd time I also experienced the anxiety pain spreading all across my back and down my left arm because I thought i’d found a lump too, which got worse and worse until I convinced myself that I was literally dying (completely catastrophised the whole thing). Lump turned out to be normal breast tissue but I was pressing and digging so hard on my breast tissue it was distorting it. I now take high strength starflower oil capsules and its kept any further breast pain at bay (plus PMT, which I now never get and I’ve put down to the starflower oil too). So sorry you had all that worry over Christmas – that 2 week wait is pretty awful if you let your imagination run away with you (like I tend to do!) but so glad all is fine.

    1. Sorry to hear you went through a similar situation too Nicola. I must read up on starflower oil capsules. Did they take long to kick in?

  11. I’ve been having some breast pain for a few months and finally went to get it scanned recently. There’s nothing there, fortunately (and now I do wonder if working posture has something to do with it).

    Anyway, whilst I felt quite proud of myself for being brave and getting it checked out, I couldn’t help but feel guilty about the waste of NHS resources when it turns out I’m fine and healthy. I couldn’t stop “Sorry for wasting your time” from slipping out of my mouth. The lovely consultant said “No! We ALWAYS want you to come get it checked out, and if the pain increases COME BACK”.

    That made me feel better but I wonder why I felt the need to apologise for my presence and investment in my own health in the first place.

    1. I think lots of us feel like this Suzie. One nurse said exactly the same thing to me, she was so reassuring and said to come back whenever I felt I needed to.

  12. It’s so important to check ourselves!! glad you are ok now.
    In Wales the age for smear checks is a lot lower than in the England (crazy to me!) and I’m so fortunate that I’ve always gone for my regular checks.
    At 21 I was diagnosed with cin3 pre-cancerous cells…so I had them lasered off. Then again at 27 I had the same diagnosis and treatment again. Im 31 now, I know my chances of it coming back at highly probable and I’ve been told that my cervix is now so thin from multiple treatment that I will more than likely have problems when I want to have a child. But, it’s all better than the alternative!

    1. I’m so sorry to hear it’s probable it will come back. Wishing you lots of good health for the future.

  13. I too have visited the breast clinic after finding a lump. The medical staff were amazing with me and totally reassured me. I had a large Fibroadenoma which needed operating on. Until the result came though – SO worrying. I’d had one diagnosed much earlier in life (around 16) and this had just grown. I was going through a lot of work stress and unsuccessfully trying for a baby & hormones can or do affect them. After I had the operation – just day surgery – and recovered it made such a difference. I then got pregnant too. All’s well that ends well. I cannot stress how important it is that you go and see your gp over things like this – it’s just not worth risking it.

    On smears, I really cannot understand why people don’t go for them – surely the research done on cervical cancer resulting in smears being offered to women means something?! It’s only a couple of minutes – it’s not the most fun thing no but it could save your life!

    I have to say that now I’ve had two babies and needing stitches in theatre whilst awake as a result nothing phases me going to the gp. Being wide awake, not in pain, with your legs akimbo and about 5 people inspecting your nether regions & some excellent sewing skills rather makes anything else a breeze!

    So glad yours turned out to be okay Lauren.

  14. I cannot understand why people to do make use of the potentially life saving resources we have in the NHS – although overstrectched etc etc, we are lucky to have it. I had abnormal cells detected from my first smear test at 18 and it resulted two years of treatment and I was 21 before I had a normal test result. I dread to think what could have happened if I had ignored the letter with my appointment.

    I check my breasts pretty much every month – a couple of minutes around showering is my routine. I have twice noticed changes – the first was a blocked sweat gland in my armpit, and the second was a new mole that was appearing. I actually felt pretty pleased with myself that I was able to pick up on these changes so quickly and in both cases my doctor saw me the very next day.

    I’m glad everything was ok for you Lauren and thank you for encouraging others to take care of our ‘lady bits’- or whatever you want to call them!!!

  15. Great topic thanks for raising. One of my very good friends had a similar situation recently, spotting some pain in her breast each month which she was tempted to ignore however eventually spoke to her GP. It did turn out to be cancerous though luckily caught very early. So after surgery she now has a good prognosis and she is very passionate about getting ladies to check their breasts. So much better to be embarrassed for 10 minutes and treated, than anything else. Glad to hear your situation turned out well.

  16. Hi Lauren, I want to say thank you for your openness in posting this today, it really is a fantastic post and thing to remind us all about.

    As someone who, throughout my 20s, ignored the smear letter whenever it arrived – not so much through embarrassment about the test itself, but because my social anxiety meant I hated having to make the phone call, I was prompted by the smear for smear campaign to book one in. Basically it served as a reminder that I should get on with it. And I think that’s something worth remembering, that sometimes people have other things going on that stop them seeking help or going for routine tests even when they think it’s a good idea.

    I’ve actually had a similar underarm/ breast pain the last few days, and, having consulted nhs direct, am waiting to see whether it improves. If it’s still happening next week I’ll arrange an appointment with my gp! In the meantime I’m cutting down my caffeine, making sure I’m wearing my very best supportive bras and trying my hardest not to let stress get to me (not easy right now!)

    1. Hi Rebecca, I really hope the pain eases soon but please do and go see your GP next week if not. So good to be able to get peace of mind. x

  17. Smear tests aren’t fun, I think we all agree on that. Also, there is naturally a little embarrassment for most of us but it’s all over in minutes.
    I had a BOGOF kinda deal with my first smear. After plucking up the courage to get it done I was relieved it was all over and was getting dressed when the nurse dropped the slide (yes, this was some time ago), it smashed, and I had to go through it all again! Fab, but it got me over any fear I had over the procedure.

  18. Great post- so good to hear you were taken seriously and that the source of the pain was pinpointed.

    So much depends on the individual doctor or nurse doesn’t it? I think when you mentioned about the NHS failings that’s what you meant- I imagine so many of us have encountered one of the HCPs who give the amazing majority a bad name. I can’t imagine they make great colleagues either. Have you read/seen the conversation around women’s pain being minimised? Jen Gunter writes a great gynae blog and Ask Me About My Uterus is on my reading list.

    Funny story- at my last smear (my second), the nurse told me she used to practice on toilet rolls. I was a bit perplexed at what that implied!

    1. Thanks Lucy, yes you’ve articulated it far better than I.
      !!!! Goodness. I too am a bit perplexed by that!

  19. Brilliant post and always good to remind people. I had to go back to have my smear redone recently as a mix up with labelling meant my original sample was rejected … but chatting to the nurse revealed the single most reassuring thing for people worried or embarrassed about having a smear done – not only have they seen everything, as you said, but as my nurse cheerfully pointed out: THEY ALL HAVE A SMEAR TEST THEMSELVES. They totally understand it! Always better to get checked regularly and take your concerns to them early: i was on the verge of getting breast pain checked recently too … then twigged it was my badly fitting bra bruising me! Glad your outcome was positive too! X

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