“Are you keeping up with your mammograms?” Jim asked.

We were watching television, a commercial for breast cancer prevention. There was a diagram on the screen showing the various sizes of tumors and the percentages of survival with each size. At that moment, the tumor being shown was the size of a garden pea and the voice-over stated the chances of survival at 99-100%.

“Yes,” I answered. “I had a check-up two months ago.”

I have fibrocystic disease and was very careful to have my annual check-ups and mammograms. I also have a family history of cancer, having lost five members of my immediate family to the disease--a double whammy--and because of that I was more closely-watched. My last mammo has been “suspicious” and had to be repeated.

I was told it was all right. “You probably just moved a little,” they told me.

I remembered how relieved I’d felt as I left the doctor’s office.

I was okay. Go home. Forget about it.

“Well, you be sure you keep doing that,” he went on.

“Don’t worry,” I was quick to reassure him. “I will.”

Fast forward twelve months. A new century. A new state. A new life for me.

Now, I was living in California, recovering from the grief of Jim’s death and the culture-shock of moving from snow-laden Nebraska to a land of palm trees. In the hustle and bustle of settling in, I let the self-exams slide.

In Nebraska, I had been a member of Every Woman Matters, a nationwide organization which provided women, without regard to age and financial status, with mammograms and Pap smears. Every year, I got a postcard reminding me when it was time, and I‘d come to rely on that little card

When I moved, I didn’t get my reminder and--I’ll admit it--I simply forgot.

In March, 2001, I abruptly remembered I’d neglected my self-exams. When I did one, I didn’t like what I found. A lump. A tiny lump, to be sure--perhaps just the size of the garden pea in that commercial, but a lump, nevertheless.

Still, I wasn’t too worried. I’d had lumps before. Didn’t I have fibrocystic disease? Lumps were to be expected. I’d even had several biopsies and they’d all been benign. As for familial cancer--hey, I was one of the lucky ones. It always passed me by…didn’t it?

I did the same thing I always did--checked the other breast for a corresponding thickening. If I found one, that would mean that my “lump” was simply a gland. This time, there wasn’t one. Okay, I’ll call the doctor. I’m overdue for a mammo, anyway.

Accordingly, I found myself in an exam room where the doctor checked my breast, agreed that yes, I did indeed have a lump, and yes, I needed a biopsy. At that point, the routine took an unexpected turn; he didn’t order an aspiration but sent me to a pathologist for a core needle biopsy.

Even the description didn’t sound good.

Okay, time to worry a little. Things weren’t going according to plan. My four previous biopsies had been a snap; three were aspirations--the surgeon simply inserted a hypodermic needle into the cyst and drained it. The fourth was surgical; I’d awakened hearing his voice telling me everything was all right.

But this time….

A few days later, I was laying face down on a table at the pathologist’s clinic, my right breast dangling through an opening at the head of the table. (Now that was embarrassing!)

As she helped me settle on the table, a nurse explained the procedure: the table would be raised and the doctor would perform the biopsy from underneath, using a scalpel shaped like a long, thin potato peeler. This instrument would be inserted into my breast and rotated, slicing off sections of the tumor for analysis. He would then place a wire near the tumor as a guide, if surgery became necessary.

My breast had been injected with local anesthetic, so it would be painless, she assured me.

She lied.

An hour later, gauzed and bandaged, I left the office, reassuring myself that things were fine now. The doctor would check the tissue samples. He’d call me back and tell me everything was A-okay.

He didn’t.

The phone call I got wasn’t what I wanted to hear. The sample was malignant. Malignant--is there an uglier word in the English language?--black and deadly and fear-inspiring.


5 comments

  1. Mary Marvella // August 22, 2008 at 8:50 PM  

    You put words to fears that lurk in the hearts of most women. You did it well! Thanks.

  2. Joanne // August 23, 2008 at 8:44 AM  

    Thank you for sharing your poignant post.

  3. Joanne // August 23, 2008 at 8:44 AM  

    Thank you for sharing your poignant post.

  4. Nightingale // August 23, 2008 at 11:27 AM  

    I know the feeling and you've described it perfectly. You realize you've looked Death in the eye. Maybe this post will remind someone out there to stop delaying that mammogram.

  5. Arkansas Cyndi // August 23, 2008 at 11:41 PM  

    very scary story. I've had a "core biopsy". My table position was exactly the same as yours. I had no pain at all. None. great drugs, I'm thinking!

    Unless yours, mine was normal breast tissue.

    Good luck. Thanks for sharing your story.