First came the shadow on the mammogram, then the biopsy, and then the results of the biopsy: I had cancer And for patients with breast cancer the big question is — now what?
And I had other questions about radiation, surgery, breast cancer survival, and beyond. Now I needed an oncologist.
For this, I was really, really lucky. When I got my diagnosis, I just happened to be writing a profile on the head of the cancer department at one of the best hospitals for cancer research in the world. Two weeks previously, I was writing about the Westminster Dog Show. That wouldn't have helped at all.
Furthermore, my next-door neighbor Jim is an oncology nurse. Jim's first question was "What kind of breast cancer?"
THERE ARE DIFFERENT KINDS?
Apparently there are: estrogen-positive, progesterone-positive, and a relatively newly recognized one: Her-2 breast cancer (Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2 positive). The first two respond rather obediently to hormone therapy, but Her-2 cancer is more aggressive with a higher recurrence rate.
But I didn't know that then, and I'm glad I didn't. When I showed Jim the paper I brought back from the doctor's, he just said, "Hmmm. Her-2."
It really is like a roller coaster. You just have to throw your hands in the air and trust the wheels beneath you. I gave myself over to Jim and the wonderful doctor I was writing about. Without their help, I might have spent weeks panicking, searching for the right doctors, weeks waiting for a date for the surgery. But within 24 hours I had a surgeon and a date for the surgery.
It is essential that anyone who has a life-threatening disease never, ever go to a doctor's appointment without someone who has his wits about him. When you're terrified, you can't make sense of everything. My son Smith and my best friend Ann knew better than to let me go anywhere near a doctor or a hospital without them.
ONE EXAMPLE OF WHY YOU NEED FRIENDS WITH YOU
Like many patientes with breast cancer, I had become numb with powerlessness. Luckily, the school year was coming to an end, and, being a school teacher, I didn't need to think about much of anything except a field trip and an awards ceremony. By June 17, I could concentrate completely on HAVING CANCER.
On the day of the surgery, the entire surgical team explained things to me one at a time. Ann and Smith sat on either side of me in the tiny examination room. This is when I learned about the wire. They were going to insert a tiny wire into my breast and hook it into the lump so the surgeon knew where to go.
I looked helplessly at my son, who said, "I don't know, Mom. Maybe it's a fuse. Maybe the doctor plans to blast it out." The nurse laughed; Ann laughed. I thought I might throw up.
Then the anesthesiologist came in. She was an elegant Chinese woman. She looked at Smith and Ann. "Is this your famerie?" she asked.
I looked wildly at Ann. Famerie? She whispered, "FAMILY. FAMILY. It's that L thing!'
Oh. "I guess so," I said to the anesthesiologist. "This is my friend and this is my son."
She smiled beatifically. "Is this your ornery son?"
ORNERY? HE'S NEVER BEEN ORNERY.
Annie grabbed my hand and, sotto voce, spelled out "O.N.L.Y."
To the beautiful anesthesiologist, I nodded yes. I was so out of it that it didn't occur to me – or to Ann or my son – how racially insensitive it was, almost a cliché, to point out her inability to say her L's, and then it got worse.
She smiled. "You're bressed," she said.
Whereupon I grabbed my cancerous breast and burst into tears. "My breast! I know it. I'm going to die!" totally ignoring Ann who had given up any hope of tact and was jumping up and down, saying loudly, "BLESSED!!!!! BLESSED!!!"
And my son was laughing, and the anesthesiologist was laughing ,and suddenly we were all "breast" except me because I had to go get a wire inserted into my breast.
FAITH AND ANESTHESIA
During that procedure, I had another mammogram and my tears dropped onto the glass and made it all smeary, the nurse held my hand, and someone else wiped the glass.
I remember the surgeon coming to me in his scrubs to explain that he was going to remove the lump, as well as one of my lymph nodes, which I learned were in my armpit. He said that he only had to remove one, the captain lymph node, which would tell him if the cancer had spread.
I told him I didn't care what he did while I was asleep. If he had to, he could take the whole breast. I didn't care.
The last thing I remember before drifting off was a wonderful peace and thinking it would be perfectly ok if I didn't wake up.
What I didn't think about was what Ann and Smith were doing while I was undergoing the knife. They wandered around the building and worked on the coloring book the hospital provides for bored children in the waiting room.
On one page, the directions said to draw the things that the patient has waiting for her at home. I've included that page here: I wanted to go home to my cat, my garden, a pile of books, and my favorite white wine. Especially the wine.
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