Friday, February 24, 2012


A year ago today they found the cancer.

Okay, that's a little melodramatic. A year ago today I had a mammogram. I don't know precisely when, after that, the radiologist sat down with the scans and said, "...Hmmm." They called me four days later and said that I needed to come back for more tests.

It was my third mammogram; my mother and grandmother both went through breast cancer young (though not as young as I) and so my primary care physician started me on annual mammograms when I was thirty-one. Yes, I have thanked her profusely since then.

I remember distinctly that when the hospital called and said, "Your mammogram was abnormal; it could be nothing but you need to come in for more tests," I knew it wasn't nothing. I knew it was cancer. There is the logic of knowing that, with my family history, if anything is found it's unlikely to be benign, but it was more instinctive than that. I had no doubts at all of what the abnormality was.

So I went back to mammography, and was squashed through the machines again, and sent back out to the waiting room while they reviewed the scans, and called in to be squashed again, and so on, about four times. All the other women in the waiting room came and went, with the exception of an older woman and her daughter. They also were there the entire time, being called in and sent back out and called in again. They looked more used to it than I felt. We avoided each other's eyes.

Eventually I was informed that the calcifications were definitely there (that's bad!), and definitely all in just one area (that's good!), and so the next step was to biopsy them. If possible, it would be a needle biopsy, but the calcifications would have to be accessible from a certain angle for that (the toppings contain potassium benzoate!), so they put me on some ghastly machine which was rather like a mammogram machine except that I had to lie on my stomach with my arms at terrible angles while my breast was clamped within an inch of its life. As close to the chest wall as possible, because that's where the calcifications were. That's bad. Not in the sense of "more deadly", but in the sense of "ow ow ow OW".

About five people stood around me while I was in this machine, discussing my case. They were all very nice, but at that point I was still invested in my dignity* and so felt an absolute fool. One of the nurses kept marveling at how still I was able to keep myself, both in the mammogram machine and now this one. I marveled that anyone would want to move under these circumstances. Your world has just changed, irrevocably; maybe if you keep still enough you can keep time from moving forward, you can keep from having to face what is happening.

The upshot, after four hours of breast clampage, was that it would have to be a surgical biopsy anyway. With wire localization. Those three words, at the time, seemed innocuous; they are something you never, ever want to happen to you. But that's a story for another day.

I can't believe it's already been a year. It seems that everything moved so quickly after the mammogram, although there were endless stretches between surgeries and results when I discovered that I am capable of sustaining a state of pure terror for three or four days at a time.

I think about it at least twice a day, when dressing and undressing, because I see the lumpectomy scar then (and the radiation tattoos, and the fact that due to radiation I have a permanent rosy tan on one breast, as if I fell asleep half-covered at the nude beach). Lately I have been thinking about it more, because I have an MRI scheduled for late March. Since the cancer would likely return in micro-calcification form, as it initially presented, the manual exams I have been getting have not really told us anything other than that I have healed well from the surgeries. The MRI will really tell us whether the cancer has returned or not. So naturally I'm anxious, but I'm also very glad that it's been scheduled.

We will return to our regularly scheduled book reviews and general silliness soon enough. Just wanted to mark, for myself, that it's been a year since all this started. And to tell all you ladies to get mammograms! They're really not that bad, although you and I both know that if the typical screening for any predominantly male cancer involved grinding the testicles between two metal plates, they would find another way. Even if mammograms were that bad, they would be worth it. Early screening for me was the difference between a lumpectomy plus six weeks of radiation and a far harsher treatment regimen with a smaller chance of success. Get screened, ladies.

*That disappeared about one week into radiation, when I realized that I was lying topless on a machine while a handsome radiation tech used the tattooed dots on my sternum to align the laser beams and I had just asked him, "How are the Bruins doing?"

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