When I had cancer…

When I had skin cancer, I thought a lot about what would happen to my family if I died. I also thought a lot about what I would change immediately about the way I was living my life. How would my teaching alter? Would I even be able to continue teaching? What would I tell my students or would I even tell them? Would I finish those scrapbooks of my son’s last eight years that I keep meaning to get to…just in case? How would I complete Grandma’s book?

I had gone in for my annual skin check at the dermatologist and asked about a suspicious mole on my back. It was irregularly shaped and was two-tone. Uh oh. So when the doctor asked if I wanted her to take a biopsy, I jumped in with a resounding YES. Then I pretty much forgot about the whole thing. I had other matters to attend to.

A week passed and then I was supposed to call to get the results. But the nurse refused to speak to me about it, and in a grave voice said she would have to have the doctor call me back. So for two hours I panicked, thinking, oh, great, now I have cancer.

The nurse called back, not the doctor, and said the doctor told her, “There’s no cancer, nothing abnormal. The cells were absolutely clear.”

Wow! That night at dinner when my family did our little ritual thing we do every night now where we each share three things for which we are grateful, I kept saying I’m grateful I don’t have cancer. 🙂 Then…

The next day I got a call from my regular doctor’s nurse about my recent mammogram. She said, “Well, the technician said that it was ‘questionable’ but that there appears to be an emerging mass on your left breast.”

Stunned silence. Oh, shit! That’s what I get for gleefully reveling in the no skin cancer diagnosis. Now I have something worse.

“We’ve made your follow-up mammogram appointment for September 11th, and they’ll also do an ultrasound to investigate further.”

“Yeh, okay, 9-11. But you said they said it was ‘questionable,’ right?”

So then I waited for two weeks further before my appointment. Mostly I was able to move on with my life, but the sobering realization that this time there really could be something wrong made it hard to dismiss the whole thing out of hand. Once more I went through all of the questioning and reevaluating, which made the start of this school year just about the most bizarre ever.

My cousin reminded me, “Nothing’s happened yet. Try to remember that.” And mostly I did. Then the day of the mammogram re-do came and with it all the gloom of remembrance for the great tragedy on that day in 2001. I was fine until the technician had to re-do one of the pictures she just did. Then I lost it.

At first I couldn’t speak as the tears flowed. Then I squeeked out, “Usually these things are nothing…right?”

She handed me some Kleenex, ignored my question and instead replied, “Everyone feels this way. Whether they show it or not, everyone feels this way. It’s perfectly normal.” She took the re-do of the re-do and then showed me where the bathroom was so I could calm down privately.

I sat back down in the waiting room, trying to grade some student’s essay. I have to get my mind off of this…. Then the radiologist came out and told me that there was something, indeed, on the mammo and that she was going to take me over to ultrasound right now. “They will determine what it is and you should get the news today. Nine times out of ten, these things turn out to be nothing serious.”

Waiting in the ultrasound area, I was too stunned to cry anymore. I had convinced myself — at least it was my party line — that the original pictures were just flawed and that there was nothing at all to see in my left breast. But now there was confirmation that something WAS there. I felt a sense of dread mounting.

By the time I was stretched out on the ultrasound table in a very dark and very large room, I was crying again. Then the ultrasound technician, whose cheerfulness I will never forget and for which I was immensely grateful (for, who would be so cheerful if the patient in front of them had cancer, right — so it must be good news!), chirped, “Oh, that’s a cist. Don’t worry!” She took a few more pictures and added, “The radiologist will come in and say the same thing in a minute. I’ll go get her.”

When she arrived after a long while (where WAS she that it took that long to come and confirm that I will live to see another day?), she took a quick look and said, “Clear cyst.” But I wanted to know HOW she knew that and how SURE she was. I was not content after all I had been through to sail on blithely through this experience as if nothing had happened. I had cancer, damn it. If I NOW did NOT have cancer, the story had to be as convincing as when I DID have it.

So the stately radiologist lady explained all about ultrasound technology and the way that tumors (solid masses) block the ultrasound waves from penetrating and thus can’t imagine the breast underneath, but how with clear cysts the waves pass through and show the breast tissue on the other side. She showed the cyst on the screen, my cyst. And there was the breast tissue on the other side. Okay. I bought her story.

This little blip on the screen looked huge, by the way, but it was only .83 centimeters. I had not even caught it on a self-exam. But the diligent technicians did. And I am grateful for their caution and care.

I have a big imagination. It’s generally a good thing. Sometimes, though, not so much. Yes, of course, I did not ever really have cancer, thank goodness. But in my mind, I did. I really did. And the experience — just a tiny taste of a much more shattering reality for so many others, I’m sure — did make me stop and think, once more, about what matters, about my priorities.

A sobering reminder not to take any second of this precious life for granted.

…and to get regular mammograms and complete regular breast self-exams.

P.S. I asked for a picture of my cyst from the ultrasound machine so I could put it on my blog! They thought I was NUTS and were ultra concerned about my privacy — really freaked out, actually. But I assured them I would only put the picture itself up without any identifying info. But the printout I did manage to get from them was too dark to scan, so I’ll just have to leave it to your imagination. For the life of me, I can’t think of a good reason not to post about this experience, though the way those two women freaked out gave me pause and delayed my posting by a couple of weeks. Ultimately, though, I decided it was an important story to share. I want to remind women to get those mammograms and do those self-exams. It’s really important. And though it was a scary experience, nine times out of ten everything really is okay!

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8 Responses

  1. “P.S. I asked for a picture of my cyst from the ultrasound machine so I could put it on my blog! ” He he. This is complete confirmation that you are a blogger 🙂

    I’m so glad, obviously, that you don’t have cancer.

    “A sobering reminder not to take any second of this precious life for granted.” How true.

  2. Yeh, I had to laugh at myself, too, at such a time to think of my blog. But I am always thinking about writing, even though of late I have not had time to write much. But that is changing as the beginning of semester adjustments are complete. I hope to be able to do more writing regularly now — though with more cheerful material, I hope!

  3. So powerful, and so beautifully written at the same time. I am very, very glad you are well. And I want to find that ultrasound tech and hug her, for what she did for you.

  4. And don’t forget that October is breast cancer awareness month!

    We can all help those less fortunate get mammograms by clicking every day at http://www.thebreastcancersite.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/CTDSites

    So glad to hear everything is ok!

  5. Oh, my! I can’t believe I forgot about that site. Shame on me! I used to go there almost every day. Thanks for the reminder and for stopping by. I’ll have to add that site to my blogroll!

  6. Good news indeed that you’re alright. How true, we shouldn’t take life for granted, not even a single moment. It takes situations like this for us to feel how vulnerable we truly are, and be grateful to the Lifegiver. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I’m so glad you’re okay. And well told account, as always. Thank you for sharing it. I do think the bullet-dodging scares are worth it if it means we can see the beauty of our lives with fresh eyes.

  8. Ari — Yes, truly grateful is how I feel!

    Katie — “fresh eyes” — how very true. It changes ones perspective all right!

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