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My Anxiety Made Me Avoid a Lump on My Jawline for 15 Years

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Around 15 years ago, I found a lump on my jawline. Ever since then, I have hidden it from absolutely everyone I know — until today.

Getting to this point has been a perfect storm of constant anxiety, a tendency to avoid anything which causes anxiety, and a case of it simply never being the “right time” to bring it up. Saying that, there never is a “right time” to tell someone you think you might have cancer.

I first felt the lump in my late teens, around the time just about everyone had a Motorola Razr — you remember, I’m sure, the flip phone with the metal keypad. Around then, I noticed it for the first time — hard, pea-sized, resting under the skin along my jaw bone. I also noticed a buzzing sound from the phone’s keypad, and in a single horrifying moment, I equated the two to the then-still contemporary fear that cell phones could cause cancer.

My phone’s keypad is buzzing. It shouldn’t be doing that. It’s given me cancer.

Of course this isn’t the case, but in my mind, the two couldn’t be more certain. Back then, I was already exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, depression and avoidant personality disorder (AVPD). However, where some might have told their parents immediately, I hid it. I buried it. I locked it away and entombed it in the deepest part of me. If I avoid it, I thought, then maybe it’ll go away. Maybe I won’t have to deal with it. At the same time, an insidious thought bloomed and spread in my mind like a weed. It’s a thought that has carried me all this time: you’re going to die young.

Perhaps I accepted it, albeit as much as the intervening years have been formed by my utter fear of death and mortality. When my father was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2011, only to die four months later, my fear of my possible cancer only grew. I would occasionally notice pain radiating from the area. Some days, it would be more painful than others, like I felt a network of nerves spreading outwards from my unwanted passenger. I would imagine it there almost every day, a stowaway, and my fingers would find their way to the area to poke and prod and wonder if anyone had noticed me doing so. When partners placed their hands on my cheek, I’d flinch away when they got too close to the right side of my face. When I’d have dental x-rays, I’d live in fear they’d somehow see it in the area, and I would be found out. In the majority of photos, I’d carefully pose so that the right side of my face is hidden. At the same time, I hoped someone would notice. I hoped someone would find it and tell me it was OK, that I didn’t have to worry and I wasn’t going to die. I didn’t count on that.

And still, every time that lump would sneak its way to the forefront of my awareness, I’d push it down. I’d lock the chest. I’d hide it away and brick up the wall and continue my life in the absolute certainty that I would die young — that one day, I’d wake up, and it would have developed, and I’d be told I didn’t have long left to live.

I obsessed over this thought often. It’s only served to deepen my depression and my anxiety. As time went on, I was almost surprised I hadn’t yet died. I never wondered why the lump hadn’t changed. A bare handful of times, I’ve Googled the words “hard lump, jawline,” but had been too frightened to really, properly look at the results. As with all things, you probably shouldn’t replace Google for a trip to the doctor. More than half of the results told me it was cancer. They are the only ones that mattered.

I’ve almost told so many people about this, be they friends or relatives or ex-partners. I wanted help — I wanted them to save me. When my dad died, I thought… now he’d know. Finally, someone would know. Even then, my disconnect with my prior faith told me he didn’t know at all — he was gone, so he couldn’t ever know. I was alone — my unwanted passenger and I — awaiting the day I’d die.

Which brings me to today, when the dominos aligned, and it all came out. I told my partner, though I couldn’t bring myself to say the words aloud. I typed them in a broken, hurried way. I forced them from my fingertips before I could second-guess it. I almost deleted them so many times before I passed over my laptop and made them read what I’d written, fearing in the very heart of me that I was triggering the beginning of the end:

I have a lump

It’s along my jawline

I’ve had it since I was around 15

I’ve avoided it all this time

Think it’s a huge source of my depression

NOBODY knows

I’m sorry I didn’t tell you

Might be same as our friend had but I don’t know and I’m so scared.

She read the words with shock and fear; it’s a look I’ll never forget. However, she remained calm. She held me as I broke down and cried. Fifteen years of fear poured out of me in a tsunami. Someone finally knew.

She felt the lump and called the doctor. When the doctor heard it had been there, relatively unchanged, for nearly half my life, he said that was a good sign. Still, for my own reassurance, he booked me in for an emergency appointment.

We’re not long home from that appointment. He was calm, reassuring and validating. He felt the lump and voiced his thoughts aloud — smooth, extremely mobile, though in an unexpected place. If it was cancerous, he said, it wouldn’t be mobile and wouldn’t be smooth. He felt for other lumps around my jaw and neck. He asked me questions, like if it felt more painful when I’m unwell with a cold or flu. I didn’t know the answer. When you’re avoiding something so completely, it’s hard to tell where the pain begins and ends. Every day, it can seem bigger or smaller depending on that day’s level of anxiety and hyper-awareness.

Finally, he sat down.

“It feels like a lipoma, along the lymph node — a fatty lump of tissue, and while it’s in a strange place, it’s not cancerous. It doesn’t give me cause for concern. The very fact it hadn’t changed in 13 years tells me this is nothing to worry about.”

Even now, an hour later, I don’t know how I feel. He’s booked me for a blood test in just a few hours, and has referred me for an ultrasound — just to be sure, he says, and for my own reassurance. I’ve spent nearly half my life with the certainty this unwanted passenger, this malevolent intruder, would eventually kill me. I’ve imagined the day I’m diagnosed in a rush of tests and tears and final confessions. I’ve feared death as if it were waiting for me just moments away.

Half my life has been dictated by the idea that I’m going to die young. Now, I’m close to being finally free.

I don’t know how or even if this will change my depression and anxiety. They go so much deeper than the lump under the skin of my jaw. I need therapy for them, and I need my medication, but I feel like something might have shifted. What the future now holds is uncertain, predicated of course on the results of these tests. I didn’t expect to live much longer at all. I feel like I’ve just been exonerated from a life sentence.

For once though… for once, in longer than I can really remember, I think I finally feel hopeful.

If you are to take anything from this article, then please let it be this: don’t do as I have done. If you’re hiding some aspect of your health that worries you, you don’t have to suffer with that knowledge alone. Others are there for you, be they family, friends, partners or even simply your doctor. I know you’re afraid of burdening them, but the people who love you will never see it as anything like a burden. They’re there to share the weight. This I have learned as of just a few hours ago. So tell them, and don’t put it off any longer. I know it’s terrifying. I know you feel like it will be the beginning of the end. However, only good can come from getting things checked out.

Your health — and you as a person — are worth more than the fear you’re going through. My inbox is always open, and I will never judge. You’ve got this, fellow warrior. We’ve all got this together.

Follow this journey on the author’s Twitter.

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Originally published: April 5, 2023
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