I'm a schoolteacher. These days that is a stressful, demanding, confusing, and pretty unrewarding job. Nobody much likes us, but we have to press on and that was what I did while waiting for my Tuesday biopsy appointment to provide details about a "troubling shadow" found during a routine breast-cancer-testing examination.
When the kids misbehaved, I put them in their place. When they made me proud, I praised them and my heart got big. I handed out papers; I made big graphically helpful stick figure drawings on the blackboard. I cajoled, I encouraged, I made jokes, I lost my temper. I monitored the hall between classes, I did cafeteria duty, I wrote lesson plans, I corrected essays, I attended a faculty meeting.
Sometimes there was a scream inside me following my initial breast check: I HAVE CANCER, but besides that occasional scream, the days preceding Tuesday were ordinary days. At night I slept a heavy dreamless sleep.
I told no one except Ginny, my dear friend and colleague, that I had had an abnormal mammogram and had to have a biopsy. I didn't want to tell anyone. It was such a private horror.
I even went to the appointment by myself.
A BRIEF LESSON IN BREAST CANCER BIOPSIES
There are a few procedures for a biopsy for breast cancer. You can have a "fine needle aspiration" which is just exactly what it says it is: a tiny needle is inserted to withdraw a sample of cells from the breast lump.
Or you might have a "core biopsy" which uses a larger needle because it removes actual breast tissue, not just little cells – but of course not the whole lump, darn it. You still have to go to the hospital for surgery for that.
The lump may be too shy to be found without help, so you have to have an ultra-sound guided biopsy, which uses that phallic instrument and the ice-cold Vaseline to locate the lump so the radiologist knows where to stick the needle.
Oh, there are other procedures: a stereotactic biopsy that involves making a small insertion into the skin. And there is the open excisional biopsy in which they insert a wire into your breast to locate the lump and they take the whole thing out. How this differs from a lumpectomy, I have yet to find out.
But I digress. We're still at the "Do I really have cancer?" stage (although I am convinced I do and that I will die). The radiologist has decided that an ultrasound-guided core biopsy is the way to go. No one tells me about the different kinds of procedures, or maybe they do but I don't remember because I am blank-eyed with terror and have lost the ability to speak.
This part of the breast cancer testing procedure goes well. Everyone is very happy and polite and gracious and they tell me I will get the results the next day.
SO NOW I WAIT.
I am only marginally OK now. Everything I do reminds me that I have cancer and I am going to die. A student asks a question. I answer, but I think, I AM GOING TO DIE. Someone asks me how I am and I scream I AM GOING TO DIE but I say "Fine." Only Ginny knows that I am waiting for the results of a biopsy.
The call comes during class. The kids are busy doing something, and it is my gynecologist. He wants me to come in to see him.
No, I tell him. Tell me now.
And he does.
The results are positive.
I have cancer.
The only stable thing I had right then was my class. I turned my attention to them, and for a half-hour or so, I was a teacher, not a woman with cancer.
The next thing is really weird. I was so convinced that I was going to get a positive result that when I went out to do hall duty, and Ginny was there, I gave her a thumbs up. Cancer won.
She laughed with relief, but I had to explain. No. I got the thumbs down. Cancer got the thumbs up.
On the drive home, I began to fall apart. My skin separated from my body and floated away like ashes. I DO NOT HAVE CANCER. OTHER PEOPLE HAVE CANCER. MY GRANDFATHER HAD CANCER. DADDY HAD CANCER. I READ BOOKS ABOUT PEOPLE WHO HAVE CANCER. I DO NOT HAVE CANCER.
OH YES I DO.
I was crying too hard to drive, so I pulled over into the parking lot of a grocery store and I put my forehead against the steering wheel. I remember thinking that that was really dramatic, like I was some sort of soap opera character. Oh, please. Grow up.
I had to call my son, my beautiful 27-year-old son who had recently been let go from a big investment firm. The economy being what it is, he couldn't find a comparable job here and he had been offered a position in the Middle East. Breast cancer was not on his agenda.
When I called him, I couldn't talk.
"Ma, what's wrong? Stop crying and tell me what's wrong."
"I'm sorry," I wept. "I am so sorry, baby."
"Sorry. What did you do, mom?"
"I just got back from the doctor. I have breast cancer." I sagged with the enormity of it all. "I am so sorry."
"Mom," he said. "Don't be sorry. It's not your fault. I love you. Please stop crying. It'll be ok. Tim's mom and sister both had breast cancer and they are both ok. Quit crying, mom. It'll be ok."
I said OK even though it wasn't. And then I called my brother and told him I was sorry, too.
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