I first felt it around seven years ago. A grape-sized lump in the back of my left arm. Being something of a hypochondriac, I arrived at my doctor’s office in a panicky state. In my mind, a lump was almost certainly cancer. When it was referred to as a “mass” I readied myself to run out of there, say my goodbyes, and get my house in order.
But after the good doctor had taken his sweet ass time rolling it around betwixt his fingers, he told me with palpable confidence that the protuberance was a lipoma—an overgrowth of fat cells under the skin. This fatty lump was nothing at all to worry about, he said and when I brought up the prospect of getting it taken out, he strongly advised me not to bother. “Unless it becomes painful, it’s really best to leave it alone,” was the gist of his advice.
Though it wasn’t exactly painful at that point, I certainly felt self-conscious when a friend, partner, or massage therapist made contact with it and shot me a worried look. Even after I assured them that it wasn’t a serious issue, it still make me feel gross in the same way that an oozing cold sore, bloodshot eye, or blackened fingernail would. As my lump grew slightly larger and more uncomfortable over the next five years, I consulted other professionals about getting rid of it. Again I was strongly dissuaded.
Then, earlier this year, I made a point of getting as lean as I could. As a result, I not only found that the lump in my arm became more prominent but also discovered that I was sporting a few smaller lumps, too. In the process of writing about the constellation of lipomas stowing away on my body, I spoke with Neil Tanna, a plastic surgeon who’s excised more than his fair share of gristly masses.
When I told Tanna that the lump was getting to be painful, he offered to examine me and see what was up. The arm lump, he said, upon palpating it in his Long Island office, was worth removing but as the two much smaller lumps in my abdomen were imperceivable and not painful, he suggested that we leave them be. “There’s always going to be a scar at the incision site,” he said. “You have to weigh that against the level of discomfort or unsightliness of the mass. In your case, the lipoma in your arm could be a candidate for removal.”
Two weeks later, I made an appointment for Tanna to separate me from what is technically a benign tumor. In the meantime, I made the mistake of searching for lipoma removal videos on YouTube and I learned a couple of things in the process. First, I learned that my little guy was positively miniscule compared to the silhouette-altering masses that are being summarily cut out of people. Before I was overcome by nausea, I witnessed bright yellow, gelatinous masses the size of pomelos being heaved out of people's necks, arms, legs, and abdomens. I was quite taken aback that people would allow their lipomas to grow so massive before seeking an intervention.
Then I looked at the amount of views these videos had and concluded that lipoma removals are wildly popular among the, ahem, masses. Dermatologist Sandra Lee is arguably the doyen of the genre; she goes by Dr. Pimple Popper but will happily rid you of cysts, rhinophyma, steatocystomas, too. Blackheads are a fan favorite with one nasty video garnering a staggering 54 million views, though the video of Lee removing what she estimates is the largest lipoma she’s ever removed has been watched a very respectable 14 million times.
Our collective fascination of things that shouldn’t be on or in our bodies is hardwired, says Curtis Reisinger, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Hofstra's Zucker School of Medicine. “It’s something common among apes—baboons in particular,” he says, adding that it stands to reason that human beings would evolve in a way that such behavior can be gratifying to them.
Though I could understand the evolutionary utility of picking parasites from close family or tribe members, I needed a little more explanation as to why merely watching perfect strangers get horridness squeezed out of them is so alluring.
“People are really good at running simulations,” Reisinger tells me. Though we’re far removed from the action we can relate to the feeling of relief in a pimple-popping, boil-lancing or lipoma removal. “In essence, we’re feeling a bit of that relief ourselves, even though it’s happening to someone we’ll likely never meet.”
Though I’d long imagined the lump in my arm to be about the size of an avocado pit, Tanna assured me that it was significantly smaller. With that, he took out a Sharpie and drew a bullseye right on top of the lump. “In a moment I’m going to inject the site with lidocaine.” he said. “That’s going to both numb the area and stop you from bleeding too much. But it’s also going to make the area swell and make the lipoma harder to feel. That’s why I’m marking where I’ll make the incision.”
Once it was suitably numb and swole, Tanna put a surgical drape over my arm and advised me to look away. “I do this day in and day out with no problem, but when I decided to watch a cyst being removed from my own body, I felt pretty funny,” he told me. “Watching our own bodies get sliced up isn’t something we’re mentally prepared to handle.”
I obediently looked away and, other than the mild pressure as he made an initial incision with a scalpel, there was no pain. I only knew that something untoward was happening by an odd look that had appeared on my buddy Nick’s face. I’d brought Nick along to shoot the excision and see if a gross out lipoma video of my own would get some views.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tanna peer into the hole he’d made. He said that at that depth, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the lipoma from ordinary subcutaneous fat. He went a little deeper before reporting that he’d found the offending lump. From watching the video after the fact, I saw that Tanna had to cut the lump free from a fibrous wrapping which he’d described earlier as being like a spider’s web. After he’d deftly stitched me up, he had me put on a glove and popped the lipoma into my hand.
I was stunned at how much smaller the lump looked and felt now that it was outside of my body and not in it. Though a bright yellowy-orange, the lump was similar in size and shape to a fava bean. Unlike the larger lipomas I’d seen wrenched out of people, mine seemed smoother, denser. We talked about me keeping it but, at a loss for exactly what I’d do with it, I opted not to.
A month later, the incision scar was hardly noticeable and I was thrilled to no longer be carrying around that puck of gristle in my body. In fact, I smile every time touch the area and find that it’s no longer there. Wanna see how it went down? Here you go.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.