One Day and Counting

March 2, 2009

I feel ready. Ready to get it over with. Ready not to have a cancerous lump clinging to my chest anymore like a broach. At night, strange thoughts wander past: is it better or worse to have a cancer you can feel? a tangible tumor? If my tumor was deep inside my body, would it be more out-of-sight, out-of-mind? 

My initial reaction to the lump was panic. I wanted it out, and I wanted it out right now. Ever-helpful, Mary jokingly offered to rip it out with her teeth…a line she still uses when I need a laugh. But I’m glad I took my time. I know a lot of women make rapid-fire treatment decisions but that’s not my style. I needed the first two weeks to absorb the shock. The third week to wrap my head around my options. The fourth week to accept my choice.

Last year, I wrote  a story for Time.com about how surgeon bias can influence women’s decisions around choosing lumpectomy versus mastectomy. Reporting this story was an eye-opener but living the experience was sobering. As predicted, all three breast cancer surgeons recommended a lumpectomy with reconstruction. None of them asked me how I felt about having an implant in my left breast, instead it was all about how quickly I could regain the “appearance” of a breast. All three bent over backwards to assure me that no one would know the difference. No one like whom? I wondered.  They coo’ed that I would look “normal.” Normal for whom? 

The Ken-doll plastic surgeon talked at me for an hour and I didn’t like what he was selling. After all of these years and millions of women come before, how is it that my choices are a) harvest parts of my own body that I’m happily using elsewhere (thank you very much) b) saline or  c) silicone (of course, he didn’t mention the 10-year life span on those pups). Want your nipples? Sorry. Want sensation in the giant swath of skin from navel to clavicle? Sorry, no can do. What could “Dr. Feel Good” do for me? As it turns out, nothing. Because what feels good to me is getting this damn tumor off my chest, and escaping this ordeal with all of my muscles in tact, and as few man-made objects in my body as possible. 

Thanks but no thanks.

No ordinary lump

February 20, 2009

This was no ordinary lump. I know ordinary. Ordinary is the lump I have in my right breast. I found it ten years ago. It too was examined but found to be a fibroadenoma. Harmless. Oval. Slippery. Rubbery. Almost friendly.  The old lump is everything the new lump is not. The new lump is hard. Ragged. Fixed in place. The new lump feels like a shard of glass under the skin. Like a piece of emotional shrapnel that exploded out of my heart and slowly worked its way to the surface.

The doctors tell me it’s been there for eight to ten years. I try not to think about it but I do. What was I doing on that day ten years ago when the first cell went awry? Was I stressed? Did I have an argument with my father? Did I eat a pesticide-laden salad? Drink contaminated water? Breathe too much exhaust? I can’t help but wonder what weakness in my body invited this anomaly.

Ten years ago I was 28 years old. That’s the year I met Mary, quit my job, started freelancing. That’s the year I started feeling like I might know what I wanted in life. But, around that same time, something hatched.

When I think of the tumor, my mind sometimes wanders to the sacks of spider eggs in our basement. We have a basement typical of the Midwest–draped with gooey, wispy webs. Marking the center of each is a sack of eggs. Inside each sack are hundreds of baby spiders. I beg Mary to vacuum them up before they hatch, but she doesn’t want to. Who can blame her?

When I found out my tumor was invasive, I pictured one of those sacks. Ever growing. Pulsating with the life inside. At what point did the sack split open and the first miniature spiders march out? No doubt they sought light, air, food, new environs to set up their spider shops. Is my tumor the same way?

For ten years it’s been growing, hidden beyond the reach of my inquisitive fingers. Then, one day, a seam opened up and tumor cells went on the march. Each offspring seeking it’s own little corner of my body to set up housekeeping. How far have my spider babies traveled? What is their final destination? How can I get rid of them? It won’t be as easy as vacuuming. Of that I am sure.

Just the facts…

February 13, 2009

Because it’s been a little more than two weeks now, I’ve already yo-yo’ed through a million different emotions and stages of denial, depression, grieving, etc… But, before I go into any of that, I should fill in a couple of details.  (Just so you know, this blog won’t necessarily be in chronological order, but I’ll do my best to have it make sense.)

I found a lump at the top of my left breast on Sunday, January 18th. No, I wasn’t doing a self-breast exam. I’ve never been a fan of self-breast exams (more on that later). Instead, I noticed a soreness in my breast while I was lying on my stomach in bed. Curious, I rolled onto my back and felt around a bit. The only thing I noticed was a little tenderness at the site of a small mole. I chalked the pain up to the mole, thinking maybe my bra  had irritated it the day before. An hour or so later, in the shower, my attention was drawn to the area again, and this time I felt a lump. As it turned out, I could only feel the lump when I was standing up.

I called my doctor the next day. I saw her on Tuesday, January 20th. As expected, she felt it and said, “yep, you’ve got a lump.” Her nurse  made an appointment for me to get a mammo at Bloomington’s only imaging facility. The appointment was for February 2nd, nearly two weeks away. I slogged home through snow and ice, veggied out on inaugural coverage, and resigned myself to waiting 14 days to take the next step in the discovery process. Thank god my sister called. Always level-headed in an emergency,  she pointed out that waiting two weeks with a lump I could feel would be torturous. She encouraged me to call imaging centers in nearby towns. I took her advice, picked up the phone, and found a breast center in Indy where they could see me the following Monday.

On January 26th, I had a full day of  mammograms, ultrasounds, and biopsies. The radiologist obviously didn’t like what she saw but reassured me that it was probably nothing. More precisely, her exact words were “you’re not the right age for this.” Back at home, I looked up a couple of stats and found out that 80 percent of breast cancer cases happen in women over 50. And that, as a woman in my 30s, my risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer was 1 in 233. Of course, that was cold comfort because barely 48 hours later, at noon on January 29th, during what turned out to be Bloomington’s worst snow storm in 31 years, a very sweet woman from the breast center called to tell me that I had cancer.