After the mammogram adventure, they herded me over to a cold corner of the giant radiology center. They wanted to ultrasound some areas; I just wanted to go home. After 4 hours of being poked and prodded, I was on my way. They told me I would need a biopsy ASAP. Nathan was an hour and a half away in Melbourne, teaching middle schoolers how to code. Do I just go home? I didn’t want to call my mom or anyone until I knew what we were dealing with. The waiting, the lonely waiting weighed upon me.
I called my OB the next day for the full results and he said he wanted a second opinion. He was sending me to a breast surgical specialist. I couldn’t wait to get her business card. I wouldn’t have to wait long, the next day I sat in another waiting room to see the pink decor and tea sets. The business card matched the waiting room. Pink. Pink. Pink. It was just a second opinion. Nathan was teaching again. I was brought back to an exam room with more pink wall and tea sets. There was a silicone breast that looked as if it had seen better days. Posters about breast cancer. It seemed like I had a long time to learn more about cancer.
This doctor, my breast surgical specialist, is a tiny woman, of about 60 with thick glasses. I lay back and she begins feeling the lump. Then she squirts the cold jelly of the ultrasound and begins to map my tumor. The nurse and doctor kept exchanging looks. A few times she tells me that the lump is very “suspicious.” They are very concerned. Can we do a biopsy right now? Here in the office? Yes, we have all of the equipment here. I guess let’s just get this done now. They looked relieved.
They had looked at both breasts under the ultrasound: there was a large mass in the right breast and a small one in the left. In order to biopsy, they inserted a large needle with a numbing agent into the right breast first. The tumor was so large that they couldn’t fully numb the area. I got my hacky sack that I’ve used as a stress ball for 20 years, more a security blanket than lucky. It was incredibly painful when they inserted the next needle to collect the sample of the tumor. Staple gun. Yes, the noise it made was a staple gun thuh-wack. Five times the needle went in and five times the terrible noise.
Then it was time for the other side. I didn’t know if I wanted to keep going. The right side had been so painful. But I had to know. I had to know what these lumps were in my body. So they injected the numbing agent and it worked perfectly with a much smaller mass. The staple gun was still less than pleasant but the worst was over. I asked how long it would be before we would know the results. It was a Thursday; they said hopefully early next week. It was a very long weekend.
Mammograms are crazy. How is this actually the best way to see if I have cancer or where it is? The mammography technician actually said to me that the flatter we can get the breast, the better the image. This she said with a bright smile on her face. Like I should be excited to have my breasts smashed into these cold, metallic plates. You’re standing there without a top; they take one of your breasts and lay it on a cold metal plate and then tell you to get as close as you can get. I tried to point out that I couldn’t get any closer to the metal bar because my breast bone was in the way. Again and again; flatter and flatter; both sides; they went out of the room and would come back in; your neck got in the way, we need to do that series again. Devastating. More in a hyperbolic sense than anything. The tech had this quirky, sweet way about her: just hold still. As if I could go anywhere, you have my boob in a vice. Trust me, I’m not moving. Or “you’re doing great” what else would I be doing? “This shouldn’t hurt too badly” or “it’s almost over” or “just one more” or “sorry, just a few more” and “you’re doing great; well they make me say that.” She knew it was terrible, but she still used sunshine.
I sometimes feel guilty for how long I waited before I did something about the lump. I don’t know when I felt it, but it was in the fall of 2013. I’m sure I sat through all of the NFL’s pink Sundays in October and I felt this lump and just pretended I was making things up. You know that fantasy where you’re dying and everyone is so nice to you and you’re the center of attention. I figured it was that. It wasn’t. I almost asked my physical therapist about it in December, but chickened out. By February I was having dreams that I had cancer. I had this thought in the shower that I was a bad wife because if I had cancer, I had to do something about it and not just leave Nathan a widower. My breast really did look weird; I looked up some of the signs of breast cancer and my symptoms were consistent with WebMD.
Now I didn’t have a choice. I had to call. But it was so matter of fact. Annoying almost. Like cleaning up when you spill something on a carpet. Get the paper towels and let the liquid seep in; step all around the area with little steps and soak it in. Get the carpet cleaner on there before it sets. That’s how it felt. Inconvenient. “Yes, I felt a lump and I think I need a mammogram….Yes, I can come in tomorrow to have the doctor examine me.” All the while I’m thinking it’s super weird to have to go to the doctor to get felt up in order to figure out if I have cancer. I went in, he thought it was just probably density or growths from too much caffeine; but he ordered the mammogram anyway.
A year ago today I was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer. The following will be a series of posts on different topics related to our experience with cancer.
It’s been an interesting year. 2014 is not what I thought it’d be or would’ve hoped. Cancer sort of flipped everything upside-down, no that’s not quite right. It blew everything up and then put some of the pieces back together and we call that chemotherapy. In some ways it’s been a great year: lots of personal growth, new friendships abounding, generosity of people we know and love and also from complete strangers. Our friends and their friends, my school and its families, my family and their friends, raised lots and lots of money. This let my caretaker, my best friend, my husband, be by my side the whole time. And if he couldn’t be there, he had the space and ability to organize an army of lovelies to volunteer their time to take me to chemo, to appointments, or to sit with me in my medicated daze after surgery.
A few times we’ve tried to make sense of it all. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer. I wasn’t afraid really at all. Not of cancer. My mother-in-law had had stage-1 breast cancer and she was fine and is fine. My father-in-law had prostate cancer and he’s fine. My dad had carcinoma and now has a cool Indiana Jones scar. But I guess them being fine during treatment must have been a selfish illusion. It was convenient to think they were okay and we’re going to be okay. On this side of cancer I know better. People die from cancer all of the time. Or people are in treatment for years at a time. No matter what, cancer sucks. It isn’t easy. It’s an immediate complication; inconvenient at best; a slow and withering end at its worst.
My biggest fear was right before surgery. That there’d be some complications and I’d die. It was really the first time I had thought about death in this whole ordeal. So many people survive cancer, but people die in surgery every day. I even made a will; on my iPhone; during church. I wanted to make sure my journals and baseball cards were taken care of; I wanted to make sure that my organs would be used; I wanted to make sure there’d be a legacy worth leaving. I want to be a person with a legacy worth leaving.