“I think I just found a lump,” I said, interrupting her mid-sentence. I was laying on my back, still in my nightgown, bare feet with painted red toes propped up on a pillow, talking on the phone with my best friend about everything and nothing, my hand resting on my breast, poking and pushing the flesh around for no reason at all, when I felt it–a hard knot, just above and to the left of my nipple. I’m not an expert on my breasts–no one ever sees or touches them–but I knew enough to know that this felt out of place.
“You need to get that checked,” she said. “Now,” with firm emphasis. Apparently, I put things off. I haven’t had a flu shot in 15 years. I avoid check-ups. I hate annuals. This works for me because I floss and brush my teeth. And I eat my broccoli. But. Cancer scares the crap out of me. I always think I have it even when I know I don’t. When I was little and didn’t understand the whole chemo thing, and I had hair wash down the drain in the shower, I was certain I was dying. I even wrote a will once and put it in my underwear drawer so my parents would find it after my funeral. I still remember–I bequeathed my scriptures and journal to my parents and my jewelry box, stuffed animals, and New Kids on the Block posters to my sisters.
But anyway. The lump. This was different. It wasn’t theoretical. I wasn’t eight years old anymore with a weird predisposition for thinking about death. I could feel this foreign thing with my own two hands, thus making the cancer fear no longer an intangible supposing but a possible reality. I mean, it could be …
I called another friend, casually mentioning that I needed a doctor recommendation for my annual exam but leaving the whole lump thing out of the conversation, because good grief, who wants to talk about it really, not me, and she gave me the number of her midwife, quickly adding, “Don’t freak out about the ‘midwife thing,’ though. She’s like a normal doctor.” But actually, the “midwife thing” calmed me. I love midwives. In my next life, I’m going to be a midwife. I called right away and the earliest available appointment was a couple weeks out. Then I mentioned the lump and miraculously they found an opening for me the next day.
I’ve only been to the lady doc a few times (see 2nd paragraph). It’s basically my least favorite thing to do, somewhat akin to vacuuming stairs, dusting, and math. And because I generally don’t do things I don’t want to do now that I’m an adult, I don’t get my lady parts checked regularly. I don’t vacuum the stairs. I don’t dust. And I don’t do math.
In the 24 hours leading up to the appointment, I almost cancelled a dozen times, certain that I was overreacting, certain that I hadn’t felt what I thought I’d felt, certain that it was surely nothing. But the lingering “what if” made me keep the appointment.
Zoe, the midwife, was a breath of fresh air. She breezed into the exam room wearing a long, flowy skirt and an easy smile, thus making it only moderately uncomfortable (as opposed to downright awkward) to have a complete stranger peeking, poking, and pushing on my private bits.
I didn’t tell her where the lump was exactly, just in case I was wrong. But as she worked her way around my breast, she stopped. Right at the lump. “Oh yes. Here it is. It’s the size of an almond.” Push. Poke. Prod. “Now there’s no need to worry. But we definitely need to get it checked further. I’m going to order a mammogram and ultrasound for you.” No need to worry? If there’s no need to worry, then why do “we” need to get “my” lump checked. Wouldn’t that constitute a possibility for worry? Yet, her voice was as breezy as her dress and I found myself quite calm and reassured.
Unfortunately, the breast health center couldn’t get me in for two weeks. Apparently, finding a lump doesn’t get you expedited treatment with them. In the meantime, I read up on the internet about breast cancer and while I don’t actually recommend doing this–there are some crazy things about cancer online–I did find it helpful to know that 80-85% of breast lumps are benign. Those are pretty good odds.
I also decided to tell my sisters about the lump–which I’d named Lionel after my favorite easy-listening crooner, Lionel Richie. “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”–not because I thought they’d handle it well (my baby sister is a major worrier), but because they’re my sisters and I tell them everything. I opted not to tell my parents at this point. I’m sure, according to them, this was the wrong choice. But I figured, if it was cancer … well, I just wanted to wait to talk to them until I had more answers.
I did end up telling a couple friends about it so I could get the group prayer thing going. I didn’t know if there really was a need for prayers at this point, but I’m a big believer in the power of collective prayer and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to get them started sooner rather than later. So I called a few close friends that I knew wouldn’t freak out or smother me with worry. Because seriously. Do not smother me. And when there’s a possibility of cancer, you need people who are not going to freak out. Maintaining the calm during the waiting is perhaps the most important quality in being a friend to the friend who may or may not have cancer, in my humble, very inexperienced-with-possibly-cancerous-breast-lumps opinion.
Leading up to the appointment, Frit kept asking how I was feeling. And honestly, during those two weeks, I felt okay. I wasn’t worried. I didn’t think I had cancer. Which is weird, because, like I said, I always think I have cancer. But on the day of the appointment, when I finally let myself actually think about it, I started to worry. What if?
I began to make plans for the just-in-case. Because that’s me. The plan keeps me calm. Even if I never need the plan. I always have one. So, in my head, I practiced telling my parents. I wondered what my breast would look like after they cut the lump out and tried to determine how I might handle that. I wondered how advanced it might be and what I might do with the differing prognoses. I visualized shaving my head. (That made me cry.) I wondered if I would still be able to nurse a baby someday and came up with options for how to handle that. And yes, I visualized dying–tying up my loose ends, planning my funeral, saying goodbye, all of it. (This too made me cry, but oddly, not as much as shaving my head.)
When I walked in for my appointment, the nurse led me to a changing room and told me to undress from the waist up and put on the cape. I took the cape from the drawer and had no idea what to do with it. Half naked, I quickly called Frit because she’d had a mammogram before and in a frenzied whisper (because there were four other women waiting outside and only a thin curtain separated us) asked, “How in the hell do you put the cape on? They really should have a diagram in here for first-timers. If I was in charge of this operation …” After she finished laughing her head off, she told me “the buttons go in front.”
P.S. The capes are horrible. There are no arm-holes. There’s no tie. It makes no sense. And you really need to be careful when you wear them as your bits can easily escape. Once I’d gotten mine all buttoned up and was sitting in the waiting area, I looked to my left and there, staring back at me, was an older lady’s entire breast, nipple and all, that had popped out from under its covering to say “hello world.” She had no idea it was exposed and resting on her arm. At that point, I decided it was best to not try and make friends and to avoid all eye contact–and breast contact. Just stare at the wall, Krista. Stare at the wall.
Soon it was my turn for the mammogram. After the tech had finished squishing my chest this way and that and back again, she told me where to go for my ultrasound and then handed me a pink canvas bag, “For breast cancer!” she said, on my way out. This was a horrible idea. Why are you handing me a pink bag “for breast cancer?” Is this foreshadowing? What did you see in the film? Seriously. Do not give a woman, who has just come in to have a lump checked, a pink breast cancer bag. I balled it up and shoved it in the bottom of my purse.
I then had to wait for the ultrasound. A new group of women were in the waiting area and we sat elbow to elbow in our ridiculous capes. One older woman kept chattering on incessantly, to no one in particular, about how nervous she was because she’d already had cancer once and didn’t want to have it again, and I’m sure she just didn’t know what to do with her nerves, but I really just wanted her to be quiet and stop talking about cancer.
Finally, the ultrasound tech called my name. Now, I know those techs can’t say anything; they’re not doctors. But when they start measuring and clicking on the screen around what you can totally see is an opaque mass, and they won’t talk to you about what they’re seeing or doing, you just can’t help but start to venture off into worst-case-scenario-land. This is where I began to really freak out.
She continued, changing the view on her screen, and now when she passed the wand over Lionel, it lit up bright red and yellow and orange while the rest of the screen was black and white. Normally this would’ve meant nothing to me. But the night before, I’d read a blog post written by my friend, a mother of four and pregnant with her fifth, who has just been diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkins Lymphoma and she wrote that when they did her ultrasound, her lumps lit up, which her (unusually chatty) tech said meant they were fleshy and active, i.e. malignant. I obviously didn’t know anything officially yet, but really truly, at this point I was certain I had cancer. My lump was red. That had to be bad.
I wiped the goopy gel off my breast and quietly went to change back into my clothes. Pretty soon, the doctor came in and spoke very quickly. I honestly didn’t catch anything except the word, “benign.” I just stood there nodding, brows furrowed, concentrating so hard on her mouth, trying to understand, but not hearing anything. “So. No cancer.” I stated, simply. “No cancer,” she affirmed. “Okay.” And that was it. I walked out and went home.
I’m lucky, I know. I’m okay. I don’t have cancer. But 15-20% percent of women don’t hear the word “benign.” And I’m so sorry for that. I don’t understand the whys of it at all.
In the two weeks since all this happened, I’ve gone back and forth weighing the pros and cons of sharing this story publicly. It’s so personal. And I really prefer to keep my private bits private. But the truth is, so much of my experience would have been easier if people … if women talked more about these things. So this is me. Talking.
Ladies, do your self exams. And just know, you may find something. Apparently, finding breast lumps is common. Who knew? If you do find something, get it checked. But tell the doctor’s office you found a lump so you can get in faster. Just know, the mammogram squish doesn’t actually hurt. Also, don’t talk about cancer to the strangers in the waiting area and keep your eyes on the wall. Don’t forget that prayer always helps, even when you think it might not be “necessary.” And last but not least, the buttons go in front.