My first surgery was 10 years ago. I was only forty. When the radiologist called and told me that I had a suspicious mass in my left breast a cold wash of sweat soaked my clothes. This was the pronouncement I never wanted to hear, of which I was terrified. I had been going for yearly mammograms for 10 years, from the year my mother was diagnosed. I met or exceeded all of the known risk factors for developing breast cancer (who knew that that was going to be what I was good at?)
I received the call at work and immediately called my older sister to ask her what these terms meant-cluster of suspicious microcalcificatons, needle guided stereo-tactic breast biopsy. I knew what as soon as possible meant. She called her doctor friends and got recommendations for me, set up the appointments and accompanied me to see the breast surgeon. As we walked into the lobby of the brightly lit cancer center, I started to tremble. I walked directly to the restroom and burst in to tears. The memories of my mother's experience had come flooding back, the treatments , the pain, the fear, the loss. Cancer. It is a dreadful word, filled with terror and frightening images. I did not want to do this, did not want it to be happening to me, just wanted to run away. I dried my tears and went to see the oncologist.
She was a very matter-of-fact straight forward woman. She explained to me that I had a 'constellation' of micro-calcifications
( suspicious cells that had collected calcium, the body's first defence against unwanted material). She said she would have to take out a piece the size of a lemon, that she did not want to leave any cells behind. A lemon? I made a feeble attempt at humor-I only have a grapefruit, what will I have left, an orange? How misshapen will I be? She mumbled something about nature abhorring a vacuum and the body filling in empty space, and seeing my eyes filling with tears, pushed a box of tissues across the desk and left the room. My sister held me as I cried.
The first part of the procedure was horrific and painful, almost medieval. It involved a lot of needles and painkillers that did not work on me. I was awake, enduring a procedure that involved lying face down on a table with my breast hanging through a hole and the doctor and nurse beneath me, sticking needles in my chest. The nurse felt my tears hit her head and the doctor said that they were almost finished and to hang on.
When they sat me up and I began to sob in earnest, she asked me if I was crying from pain or fear. I said both. She assured me that from then on I would not feel anything. I didn't. I went to sleep and woke up, trussed in a girdle- like chest wrap, feeling like someone had punched me really hard in the chest
My sister drove me back to her house where my beloved dog, my little family, was waiting for me. We went up to the guest room, I was nauseous and exhausted. I stood and opened my shirt and saw the yellow stain of betadine on my skin. The wrap was very tight,and there were spots where blood and fluid had soaked through from the drains they had left in. I could easily discern a distinct difference in the size of my breasts. It hurt. I leaned with my back against the wall and slid down until I was sitting on the floor sobbing uncontrollably. My sweet Bubsy tried to comfort me, licking my face , sitting as close as he could. I wrapped him up in a hug and cried for a long while.
I was forty and single, still vain enough about my body to feel a huge sense of loss, to feel disfigured, to wonder who would ever look at me and not be unnerved my my ugly appearance. How would I ever let anyone touch my breast again? Would anyone ever want to? Worst of all, did I have cancer? I cried for myself, and I cried for my mother who had gone through all of this before me. I needed her, but she was gone. I lived alone and went through the pain , which was significant, on my own. I needed help with bathing, when I finally could shower, I needed someone to wrap that damnable girdle around me when I was finally able to wash it. My friends were my angels and my dog, my salvation.
After waiting an interminable 2 weeks, I got the biopsy results back. Benign! Such relief as I have never felt swept over me. Benign but with a caveat. The surgeon said that I had very "active" breasts and there was no doubt that I would be seeing her again. I spent the ensuing years making sure I got my mammograms, participating in a study of a drug to try to prevent a recurrence, getting MRI's once yearly when they became available as a diagnostic tool. Over that period of time I had many biopsies of both breasts, but always the results were benign. These procedures were never as awful as the first. I found a wonderful man who told me my breasts were beautiful. I lived and loved, took care of myself and did not worry.
Ten years later, I turned fifty. By this time I had been going to Fox Chase Cancer Center for my check ups for a few years at the urging of my OB/GYN.
Sure enough, this time they found something. I needed more surgery. Something that sounded suspiciously similar to the first procedure. I questioned my doctor and told him of my first experience, and he assured me that many things had changed in ten years. My partner and my best friend came with me. They took another chunk out, this time the size of an egg, from the same breast. Many things had changed in ten years. The procedure was painless, the recovery quick and the scarring minimal. But the mass was malignant.
But, and now we come to the crux of this story, the reason I have recounted this painful time in my life, my cancer was detected at the cellular level. Because of my diligence and that of my doctors, it had been found early enough as to require no post-operative treatment whatsoever. I was home free. I was not to have the same experience as my mother, I was not her. Ironically, my surgery had been scheduled for the anniversary of her death. I miss my Mom every day of my life. But she put me on this path of conscious effort to live and look after myself, and when I see her again, I will give her a huge hug of thanks.
I was lucky enough to have a job with good medical benefits. I shudder to think of where I would be without insurance coverage. I know though. I'd be dead. The shameful fact that so any Americans have no health care coverage burns me to my soul. This situation is unacceptable, and it is my hope that our current administration will finally get it right. There are , however free mammogram screenings in cities and towns all over the country. I urge any and all women reading this to find one and make an appointment. It could save your life.
I am now a member of the club that no one wants to join. But I am also a poster child for early detection. I schedule my mammography regularly. I am alive and healthy and happy. Have you scheduled yours this year?