"I thought I couldn't get breast cancer because I had small boobs"

·6-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

There are all sorts of myths about breast cancer, like that a lump is the only symptom you can get. Another one – and something 36-year-old Lauren Mahon believed was the case until her own diagnosis five years ago – is that you can't get breast cancer if you've got small boobs.

"In my head [I believed] you have to have a significant amount of breast tissue to get breast cancer. I thought that was a thing," Lauren, who co-founded podcast You, Me and the Big C with Deborah James and the late BBC presenter, Rachael Bland, told Cosmopolitan UK. "It was just literally my logic," she added. But sadly, as Lauren learned, that isn't true.

After grazing her breast one day in summer 2016, she felt a lump. "It was like the outer right area of my breast, and it was big," Lauren recalled. "I thought maybe it was just a cyst – I’ve had cysts before – or maybe it was hormonal. So I monitored it to see if it went away, but it didn’t."

Lauren began experiencing what she describes as "shooting pains" around her lump, and was subsequently told with complete confidence by friends that it couldn't be cancer, because cancer doesn't hurt. "That’s another myth," said Lauren. "It did hurt, it hurt very much."

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2016, Lauren said it came as a "big shock". And a lot of that, she told Cosmopolitan UK, was to do with her lack of understanding about cancer.

"We're not told at school, we’re not taught anywhere that we should be checking our breasts as young women," Lauren pointed out. "I didn’t even think it was a thing to be considered at my age and with the size of my breasts. I wish I had known to be more body aware – I think we’re made to feel like we’re invincible.

Know your body

"I think so many women are scared to self-examine because they’re scared of finding something. But the big point to hit home is that you’re not feeling your breasts to look for cancer; you’re feeling and looking at your breasts to know what is normal for your breasts. So if that suddenly changes, you know that’s not your normal and you can do something," she said.

After undergoing a successful series of chemotherapy treatments, as well as having surgery and radiotherapy, Lauren is now cancer-free. But because her cancer was triggered by hormones, she had to have early menopause triggered by drugs that shut down her ovaries in a bid to prevent the disease from returning.

And it's not been an easy experience. "I’ll be honest, I really did struggle mentally with it. I have felt quite robbed to be in my 30s and to be dealing with all the menopausal side effects – which I experienced to the extreme," Lauren said. "No one really talks about menopause either. What I knew of it is that you get hot flushes; you get mood swings. I didn’t realise you get vaginal dryness, I didn’t realise it can make your bones creak and ache, that your energy levels are zapped.

"I’m a woman in my 30s and I felt like my virility was taken. It’s hard work. In terms of my dating life, I shouldn’t have to be going into the bedroom and going, 'oh, by the way darling, I might have to get a big bottle of lube out because I’ve got a dry vagina'," Lauren said. “I’ve always been very open about it, I am all about normalising conversations that are difficult to have, so you make people feel less alone. We’re sold one version of femininity, one version of beauty, one version of womanhood – and it’s bullshit.”

Lauren has also been running her Girl vs Cancer blog for the past five years, it’s a community for those who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis. “I started sharing my stories because I wanted a future Lauren to know where to go,” she explained. “I couldn’t find women like me, and as a white heterosexual woman, how? That’s what Girls vs Cancer is all about, helping other women find what I struggled to.”

Time to heal

Several lockdowns have meant that Lauren has spent time having therapy and healing from everything she’s been through, which in turn has invigorated her approach to dating. “I don’t go on dating apps anymore,” she said, preferring to date a person a month IRL instead. “My work is my trauma, so I’d put all my energy into that, then spend time on apps talking to people I don’t even know. I was giving them all my energy when they hadn't earned their place at my table.”

“There’s been men, but never to the level I’d like them to be, it’s never worked out” continued Lauren, who is 36 years old. “I’ve got a very full life, a wonderful, gorgeous life.” So anyone she dates needs to add value or else she doesn’t want to know.

“It’s been a challenging year – for everyone,” said Lauren, but she’s excited about Girl vs Cancer going through a rebrand, which will be unveiled soon – watch this space. “There’s no one way to do this thing called life,” she continued, “and there is no one way to be a woman.”

Eluned Hughes, Head of Public Health and Information at Breast Cancer Now debunks the myth about breast cancer and small boobs:

  • Anyone with breast tissue can develop the disease, and there’s no evidence that the size of your breasts affects your risk, which is why all women – regardless of their cup size – should check their breasts regularly and report any unusual changes to their doctor. One in eight women in the UK will unfortunately develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime.

Photo credit: CouCou Suzette
Photo credit: CouCou Suzette
  • There is no single cause of breast cancer – it results from a combination of our genes, our lifestyles, and our surrounding environment. Two of the biggest factors that increase your chances of developing the disease are being a woman and getting older – with at least four out of five breast cancers occurring in women over 50.

  • It’s sometimes mistakenly believed that wearing antiperspirants, or bumping or bruising your breasts can cause breast cancer – or that eating 'superfoods' can help prevent the disease. But, there is no evidence to suggest these myths are true. In contrast, there’s very strong evidence that all women can reduce their risk of breast cancer by maintaining a healthy weight, limiting the amount of alcohol they drink, and being physically active on a regular basis.

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