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My New Boobs Series | “Fateful Discovery”

Only days before learning my breasts and I were destined to part company, the notion that my world could fall out of its steady orbit would have struck me as impossible.

It was September 15, 2004.  My two-year-old son was playing outside with his 17- year-old brother.  My husband was relaxing on the sofa, having a post-work beer, and I was upstairs, putting away laundry, the TV playing quietly in front of me.  When the weather came on, I saw a graphic predicting unexpectedly high temps for the following day and without really thinking about it, raised my left arm to check for stubble, as I’d need to shave if we decided to go to the beach.

And there it was, a lump the size of a marble on the outside flank of my left breast.  I paused, letting some shirts fall back into the basket as I probed this piece of hidden tissue.  Round, hard, not really separate from the skin around it, this was something new, something that in an instant takes your life from one place and catapults it into another.

“Bruce,” I called, trying to sound calm in case the kids heard me through the open windows.  “Bruce, come here, I need you to feel something.”

Of course he had no idea what I’d discovered.  He was watching ESPN. “What?” he yelled, obviously engrossed in the NFL reports, hoping against hope that his beloved Jets would finally have a decent season.

“Come here!”  I guess there was something in my voice that broke through Boomer and Jaws and Merle – he bounded up the stairs with his beer, a look of concern on his sweet, olive toned face.

“Do you feel this?”  I asked in a shaking whisper.

His fingers kneaded the skin I presented.  Eyes thoughtful, he spent some time poking around, and said, “Yes I do, but it can’t be anything.  You were just at the doctor.”

That was true.  Two days earlier I’d gone for my annual gynecological exam.  The doctor had palpated my breasts, felt my glands, gave me a pelvic exam, pap smear, and presented me with prescriptions for a routine mammogram and a year’s worth of birth control pills.  It made sense to think this was nothing.

But in that moment, I knew we were in trouble, that this was a problem, maybe a catastrophe, and that no matter what anyone said, I was looking down a long dark tunnel with light so far in the distance it seemed like a sputtering flame with all the radiant heat of a tea candle.

I phoned my gynecologist the next morning.  He was remarkably unconcerned with my finding.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he assured me. “I just examined you.”

And while I wanted to scream, “Well then how did you miss this marble inside my breast?”  I realized right away I had put myself in the wrong hands.  Blame was for later.  Right now, I needed to act.

So instead of metaphorically ripping his head off with a vehement verbal castration, I just told him it must be nice to be so supremely sure, hung up, and grabbed hold of my medical destiny with a gusto I hadn’t exercised since leaving my job, my life in Manhattan and embracing soothing world of suburbia, marriage and motherhood.

Moving quickly, I booked an emergency mammogram for later that day.  The examination took forever, my fears spiking every time the technician examined an image and called me back for another, squishing my paltry flesh between the plates, apologizing for the difficulty in capturing this most awkwardly positioned lump.

Finally it was over.  I went into the facility’s conference room.  A male doctor, fidgeting with a pen and never quite looking me in the eye, explained that I’d need an immediate sonogram.  He recommended a lab nearby that could take me the following morning.

“Is it cancer?” I asked, trying to remain calm in front of my toddler, who was playing with his Bob the Builder truck and making “vroom vroom” sounds from the floor.

The doctor claimed he didn’t know, but the truth was all over his nervous, twitching face.  The idea that he was holding back crucial information about my body, (my health, my life!) really infuriated me.  Not wanting to freak out my kid, I swallowed a rant about misogynist medical professionals and confirmed the sonogram appointment.

Outside, on this beautiful late summer’s day, the disparity between chirping birds, bike riding kids and the chaos in my head was momentarily crippling. Cancer!  Freakin’ cancer inside me!  What the hell were we going to do now?

At a loss, I did what I think any mom would do:  I took my son for ice cream, letting him drool vanilla glop all over his striped Gap t-shirt while I sat on a bench in brilliant sunshine and tried to convince my husband over a distorted cell line that things were not ok, and that he needed to get home now.

Hysteria bubbled up inside me.  Cancer!  Freakin’ cancer, and my dad not even gone a year!

I thought of telling my mother this when she was still in a tailspin over being a widow after 52 years of marriage.  I thought of my brothers and sister and all we’d gone through because of this word, this thing, this unbelievably awful disease.  Talk about a bummer – this was the ultimate and I – little miss sunshine, who was always healthy and fit and white as a ghost because I wouldn’t lay in the sun – was now going to deliver the ultimate downer to everyone in my family!

Quelling the fire that was starting to bubble up my esophagus, I ordered a large cone and had it covered in sprinkles.  My boobs had to weigh at least a pound, I reasoned, so it wasn’t as if this unheard of indulgence would ruin my figure.  If anything, I might have a little more play with my diet – maybe if I had to have chemo I’d lose those last pregnancy pounds.  Maybe this would be ok after all.

Twenty-four hours later, the cancer in my left breast was confirmed, along with an additional tidbit of news: a smaller lump was hiding deep inside my right breast, and would need a core biopsy to be diagnosed.  That’s how I came to be on St. Nick’s examining table, clutching at my robe and processing his pronouncement that when it came to breasts, mine were more trouble than they were worth.

Before hearing his dire pronouncement on recurrence, I had been fine with the idea of just taking out the lump.  I’d met with a breast surgeon, who told me that removing the lumps, having chemo and then radiation would make me as good as new. But once the second tumor was caught on film and St. Nick weighed in with his recommendation, I began to doubt the breast surgeon.  I quizzed him pretty hard about the chances for recurrence but he was adamant his ‘lum-PECK-tomies’ as he pronounced them, would be more than adequate.

Perhaps had things not gone so completely awry for me after those lumpectomies, I might have listened to him, but as luck would have it, while the surgeries themselves were successful, my post-operative experience was so awful I decided to do the exact opposite of whatever the breast surgeon recommended.

1 Comment to My New Boobs Series | “Fateful Discovery”

  1. chris kessler's Gravatar chris kessler
    August 25, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Buff, I love the way you write! Of course, as your sister, I know all of this already, but reading how you WRITE about it is altogether different. I hope your strength and wisdom on this subject helps others.
    I am eternally grateful to you being so aggressive in the way you sought treatment and listened to yourself rather than the Dr. who told you a lumpectomy would be enough.
    To me, you are a brave warrior…maybe spared so you can go on doing what you do best…communicating with others through your gift or writing to help them along through their own dark journey with cancer.
    I’m proud of you and am SO glad you are here…for your own family, for me, to be a fabulous aunt to my children, to listen when Mom is driving me insane…for all of it!
    Love you!

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