“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.
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.