“Are you remembering to do regular breast exams?” she asked while washing her hands.
“Um, sometimes,” I paused, “Not really.” I decided to just come clean, this wasn’t a college final. This was an exam, but I was pretty sure the gynecologist wasn’t going to fail me.
Until she did.
“How long have you had this lump?” she inquired looking down at me with concern as her hands worked their way around my chest.
I was thinking about the celebrity gossip magazine I had just devoured in a paper gown waiting for her to enter the room. She was over forty minutes late. I almost went home.
I didn’t answer. She jerked me out of my stupor when she grabbed my hand and placed it on my right breast.
“Here. Do you feel that?”
I did. What was that? How did it get so large without me noticing? Still, strangely, I was calm. I don’t have cancer, I thought.
“You can sit up now,” she said and began to scribble on a blue piece of paper. “I want you to make an appointment to get a mammogram and an appointment with Dr. ____. She’s a surgeon.”
“Okay,” I said grabbing the blue form and clutching my paper gown.
She shook my hand and held it for a beat longer than necessary. Her concern hit the bottom of my stomach and threatened to send me into sobs. Instead, I jumped off the examining table and threw on my clothes. Better to face all this with jeans on, I thought.
I called the Breast Health Center and had an appointment the next day. That was my first inkling that this was serious. I had a baseline mammogram when I was 35 and that took weeks to schedule.
When I got to the Center they ushered me up to the second floor. I didn’t even know there was a second floor. Everyone was female and all soothing smiles. They offered me coffee. That was my second clue. I have never been offered coffee at the doctor’s office.
The environment was as comfortable as I suppose you can make a center focused on breasts. I was given a locker and a robe thicker than paper. There were plenty of women’s magazines. The older woman who contorted my breast and squeezed if flat between large moving plastic objects was delightful. I wanted her to be my grandmother.
The third clue was when grandma came back into the waiting room and said the radiologist wanted her to take a few more pictures. At the time I thought she had somehow messed up the slides, but I know now that more pictures means more questions and that generally isn’t good.
I was walking back to the main sitting area when I ran into my new grandmother talking to the doctor. “Has she been told, yet?” the doctor asked. Grandma saw me out of the corner of her eye and tensed. I knew they were talking about me.
My suspicions were confirmed when the doctor called me into her office.
“We found something,” she said.
Turns out they found a mass (as opposed to a cyst) and it wasn’t what my gynecologist had discovered. The doctor told me that is often how it works; you come in looking for one thing and leave having found another.
I sat there and blinked hard. She was talking about a biopsy and minor surgery and I couldn’t take in any of it. I could feel tears starting to well up and felt foolish. They didn’t know if this was anything, yet. I didn’t know what this was, why the heck was I about to cry?
Finally, I realized I was fighting what I needed in the moment: acknowledgement of my feelings.
The doctor kept rattling on so I blurted out, “I’m trying not to freak out.”
She looked at me as if noticing me for the first time. “Oh,” she said.
“Yeah,” I nodded, as if urging myself on, “I’m trying not to.”
“Well, there’s nothing to worry about, yet,” she concluded and handed me paperwork for the biopsy. She wanted to have it done the next day. I sucked down my tears and went home.
I didn’t tell anyone. I didn't want people to worry. I told myself I could soldier through it. My appointment with my gynecologist was on a Tuesday and the biopsy was three days later, Friday.
After a surgeon used what looked like a staple gun to extract the potentially nefarious blob, I spent the weekend tucked into my couch, unable to lift anything, nose running from a nasty cold, and waiting.
I also wondered. Is this how it goes from here on out? Is this just a part of aging? The ol’ breast cancer scare rite of passage? Or something more devastating? I didn't cry. Instead, I watched the last two seasons of The Wire that I had never gotten to.
The following Wednesday I had an appointment with the surgeon and was given good news. All was/is well.
When I left her office and drove away, a car cut me off on the road. I mumbled an expletive at the driver and my anger shook me awake.
I had been holding my breath and holding all my feelings at bay – again. Old habits die hard. But in that moment, I was salty. A good sign, I told myself. That means I’m alive.
* Interesting discovery through this process: my initial gut reaction was correct.
**Interesting bit of research: most women don’t discover bumps in their self-exams.
Moral of the story: get someone to feel you up regularly! (Literally and figuratively)