While I expected a boost in confidence and a propensity for taking my shirt off after getting in shape, the handful of small rubbery tumors that I began finding all over my body came as something of a surprise.
The peanut M&M-sized one on my upper rectus abdominus seemed particularly cruelly placed. I’d put in a lot of work into revealing that 6-pack only to find that, at some point in the past, it had been defaced with a small lump. If I hadn’t suddenly become good at going to the gym and avoiding carbs this past spring, there it would have remained, undetected, nestled in a half-inch blanket of subcutaneous fat.
You’d be forgiven for wondering why I’m relaying my being covered in strange masses so nonchalantly. The answer is that I’d been harboring something similar in my left arm for years. It’s called a lipoma and several doctors have made me feel foolish for wasting their time by talking about it. These other bumps—I strongly suspect—are more of the same.
Simply put, a lipoma is a benign tumor of fatty tissue and, until I had one growing on and possibly into my left tricep, I’d only ever experienced them when I went to pet an elderly dog and recoiled in terror at the pliable protuberance I’d made contact with. Incidentally, the Merck Veterinary Manual actually makes mention of older and overweight Labrador Retrievers, Doberman Pinschers, and Miniature Schnauzers being particularly susceptible to them.
“Is it bothering you?” asked one physician when I first presented with it then had the gall to ask if the old fatty dog lump could be gotten rid of. I stupidly told him that it wasn’t giving me any pain and was politely shown the door. I came back a year later and told him that the lump was growing and increasingly tender—which was true—but my complaint was fairly brusquely dismissed. In fact, he seemed irked that I was asking him about it again.
Two years later another doctor who, not for nothing, happened to be a family friend, humored me and sent me to get an ultrasound. The result was that it was indeed a lipoma—that renegade lump of gristle that sits between the skin and muscle.
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Four more years went by. Girlfriends noticed it. Massage therapists explored it with their fingers and, when they did, I imagined them feeling some concern for my well-being. One even paused the massage to ensure that I was aware of the lump and had had it checked out. For these and other reasons, I tried my luck again with my current physician. He referred me to a dermatologist who once again told me that I would do well to ignore it.
“We can get it out, but some of the time the lipoma may have grown into the muscle tissue and create new problems,” he told me. So I did it ignore it. And then I lost some body fat and it turns out that I have at least three more of the bastards which, sticking with the movie candy scale, range from Raisinette to Whopper in size.
Mark Kransdorf and Mark D. Murphey, authors of Imaging of Soft Tissue Tumors estimate that a little over 2 percent of the population are smuggling at least one lipoma on or about their persons. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) report that lipomas affect men slightly more than women and usually manifest between 40 and 60 years of age.
Despite there being roughly 6 to 7 million people with lipomas in the US alone, very little is known about what causes the most common kind, the kind that I have, superficial subcutaneous lipomas. On their website, the AAOS will only go as far as remarking that: “some doctors think that lipomas occur more often in inactive people.” If there’s any truth to that, there’s a beautiful irony about finally getting active and finding a gristly note that that says: “you should have gotten around to working out years ago, fucko!”
“In virtually all cases an incision is required to cut a lipoma out,” says New York-based plastic surgeon Neil Tanna when I ask why medical professionals have been doing their all to dissuade me from having my growing brood of lipomata excised. “That means it’s going to leave a scar. So the real question is, is getting rid of it worth having an incision scar?”
Tanna explains that removal is a good idea if the lipoma is growing, unsightly—when it's a visible tumor—or causing discomfort. He adds that any discomfort is usually the result of a growing lipoma putting pressure on surrounding structure or a nerve. My lipomas each meet at least one of those three criteria. Surely there had to be some undue risk I wasn’t being told about. What of the scenario the dermatologist mentioned—the idea that the muscle tissue and my fatty stowaways had merged like a tree trunk enveloping an iron railing?
“Aside from scarring, the risk of a complication from lipoma removal is very uncommon,” he says. “It’s a very quick procedure, usually performed in a doctor’s office with very little downtime. Patients typically return to their activities 24 to 72 hours afterwards and that's just to give the incision time to heal.”
Given all that, it was hard to see why the doctors I’d seen were so discouraging about getting these suckers out of me though it’s probably worth noting that they were all primary care doctors or dermatologists, not plastic surgeons like Tanna. If it wasn’t for my insanely high deductible, I’d go ahead and get these things out. Based on their maleficent appearance alone—think Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—they are not welcome in my body. So, of course, I just asked Tanna if he’d be down to take them out gratis. He said sure, meaning that this article is probably going to have a more disgusting sequel.
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