If gross medical stories bother you in any way, I respectfully ask that you click to something else and skip this one. I’m not into this kind of thing, either, but I feel duty-bound to share what happened to me in case that knowledge might help someone else.
I woke up one morning, and I had a really sore spot. It was the first thing I noticed, this mysterious pain. I happened to be wearing a onesie, the kind of full-body pajamas that snap down the front, and I undid the snaps to take a look.
Huh, that’s weird. Everything looks fine. Why am I so sore?
And what the heck do I call this body part?
I later learned that this is the “epigastric area.” It’s right where the ribs come up and connect to the bottom of the sternum (the xiphoid process). Another way to think of it is where the bow would be on a bikini top.
I prodded the sore spot and tried to guess what was going on. It felt hard and swollen and it was about the size of a nickel. My top guess was that I had somehow lain on one of the snaps from my onesie and bruised myself, although my skin looked completely normal. Second guess, I had done something to myself during my workout on the elliptical 18 hours earlier, either a. to my skin or b. some kind of strain.
I shrugged and went about my business.
When my husband came home several hours later, I told him, “I did something to myself in my sleep and it’s still super sore.” He happens to be an emergency medical responder (like a civilian ambulance driver) and he checked it out.
He made a face.
“Any swelling under the skin like that is not good. You should go to urgent care.”
Pfft. Whatever. The closest urgent care on our health plan is in another city, 45 minutes away, a very sketchy neighborhood. I hate going there. I hate doctors and hospitals in general. Plus it’s rush hour. Thanks for your opinion, I’ll take that under advisement.
The next morning, the spot had a red blotch on it, like a bug bite. It still felt very sore, hard, and swollen, only now it was the size of a quarter. Hmm.
I wasn’t in any big hurry to leave, because we were in the midst of a veterinary crisis and our dog walker had a death in the family. Everyone else’s problems were a bigger deal than mine. I puttered around for a couple hours and then took the bus to urgent care.
The bug bite thing had started to burn. I was aware of it continually getting worse, and I started to realize that I was probably in the right place. By the time I saw a doctor, two hours later, I was nervous.
“Well, we got to it in time,” she said.
Um, what does that mean?
She told me if I had waited much longer then I would have had to come in and have it cleaned out and drained.
THIS thing?? This little bug bite thing?
I was prescribed Keflex four times a day for ten days. All righty. I always follow my prescriptions but I don’t really know much about antibiotics. It seemed like a lot. When I got them I actually started laughing at the sheer size of the bottle itself. Wow, horse pills!
My husband the emergency medical responder was also surprised when I texted him at work. Four a day? “We got to it in time”? What’s the diagnosis?
The doctor hadn’t mentioned it by name. I looked at the printout and my heart sank.
I had done a considerable amount of research on cellulitis for a novel in progress. It can quickly turn to necrotizing fasciitis. It’s well known for popping up out of nowhere, and ending with a patient in a coma with multiple amputations. Or... dead.
The next day, this patch of cellulitis was noticeably bigger. There was a rash around it four inches wide.
If I were single, I definitely would not have gone to urgent care before this point. Honestly the thought never would have crossed my mind. I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned it to anyone; I’m just used to complaining to my husband about every little thing. But the sheer size, color, and burning pain of this area had my attention. I would have thought, Dang, whatever spider bit me, I hope I find it so I can drop a phone book on it.
We had an event to go to that day, a Saturday, and I was already taking these antibiotics, so I figured I’d have faith in modern medicine and go to our party with the huge antibiotic bottle crammed into my tiny purse. What’s three hours? Hubby zipped me into a dress that I could wear without a bra. The party was a bad idea - the antibiotics gave me waves of nausea, I had a splitting headache, and the cellulitis pulsed and burned. It felt like someone was stabbing me! I gripped a cloth napkin until my knuckles were white and smiled through the pain.
When we got home, I immediately took the dress off. The cellulitis patch was easily 50% bigger and it had gotten puffy. Oh shit.
I spent two hours on hold to talk to an advice nurse, who said “It will get worse before it gets better.” The signs to watch out for were vomiting, being too weak to stand up, losing consciousness, or streaks radiating off the wound site. Oh. Okay so as long as I don’t have blood poisoning I guess this is normal.
I did some research online in bed that night. It turns out that cellulitis usually happens to severely obese people and diabetics (I am neither), and it’s almost always in the lower leg and foot area. I was pretty sure mine had been triggered by my sports bra, since I have had skin reactions in that specific area before. I skimmed a few more medical journal articles. It seems that there are a LOT of cases of women getting either cellulitis or cysts around their bra straps. I talked to various friends over the next few weeks, and three had the same problem. I guess this is not unheard of? One had surgery and the other had a cyst the size of a lime that went away on its own right before her own scheduled procedure.
I fought this condition for four weeks, three urgent care visits, ten days of Keflex, and two seven-day prescriptions for Doxycycline. At one point I gained seven pounds in five days. Finally I was referred to general surgery to remove a pea-sized cyst, and I now have four stitches on my “epigastric area.” This is terrific, because at one point that thing was the size of a large green grape, and the scar would have been bigger. The incision looks clean and tidy (call me Frankenwife) and the cellulitis appears to be totally gone.
I fully intend to return to wearing bikinis next summer. If the scar is visible I’ll just tell everyone it’s a spear wound.
There is not consensus on whether my bra triggered the cyst and the cellulitis. The two conditions are not necessarily always related; it’s possible to have a cyst with no cellulitis or cellulitis with no cyst. Two doctors and a registered nurse readily agreed that it was likely my tight bra was implicated, while the surgeon said no way. (But then she’s a rail-thin century cyclist in an A cup). I share because if that many of my personal acquaintances had a similar story, then this should be widely known as Something to Watch Out For.
I’d never heard anything like this before, and I’m 44. Personally I have felt extremely embarrassed, ashamed, and disgusted with my own body the last month, and I didn’t want to tell anyone. I can imagine that other women keep this sort of thing to themselves for similar reasons. We should share, though, because this information can save lives. I wasted two days through sheer ignorance. If I can spare someone else it will have been worth it.
If you find “a lump” anywhere remotely near your breasts, then don’t waste time, because if it’s bacterial then it will mess you up a lot faster than a tumor would. Don’t write anything off as “just a bug bite” or a pimple or an “oh I’m sure it’s nothing.” Don’t be like me, the serial medical procrastinator. Maybe if I’d gone to the doctor the first day, like I was told by the first person to look at it, my weird little sore spot wouldn’t have ended in sutures.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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