Breast Cancer: The Decision
How could the sun still be shining? How could the birds still be singing? How can the world keep turning when I was just handed a death sentence? All these people driving past—why aren’t they slamming their car’s gear shift into park, throwing open their door and running to me? These people that are sharing the sidewalk with me, why aren’t they rushing over to me to see what tragedy has happened? Surely every one of them can tell that the world as we know it is coming to an end. Not just a slow leaking, whimpering kind of end but a crashing, exploding, deafening kind of end. As I stared in disbelief at my fellow human beings, the doctor’s words kept reverberating in my head when he’d wheeled his small stool close to me and laid his hands on my knees. He leaned forward, as if I needed his proximity, to convey the earnestness of his next words.
I’d gone in for a regular mammogram early this morning. When the technician saw the x-rays, she called in a radiologist STAT. That’s when I called to tell my brother I didn’t think I’d be able to meet him for lunch. Once the radiologist got there she had me taken to another room so she could run an ultrasound. That’s when I first started thinking I might be in trouble. I watched the images on the monitor as they were reflected back through the gel to the “wand”.
Don’t you think that might only be some fibroid thing?”
Even though the room was dim I could see the regret on her face.
“I would, Gloria, if it weren’t for this mass, this mass, this mass. . . “
I stopped listening after that.I wasn’t even dry from the gel when I was ushered across the hall tothe mammotome room, still clutching the flimsy hospital gown in front of my chest. As soon as the door closed yet another technician pulled the gown from the death grip I held on it and told me to lie on my stomach on the table. When I was in position, the (thankfully) female tech reached beneath me to maneuver my breast into a hole in the table, allowing it to drop free. I then heard a motor and the table began to rise. When struck nearly dumb by embarrassment, I resort to humor."How about rotating my tires and checking the oil while you’re down there?”
There was no response from the doctor or technician and my fear deepened. After my breast was numb, the rest of the procedure lasted about thirty minutes. As the radiologist was putting bandages on the small cuts made by the needle-like instrument used, she told me to come back at ten o’clock the following morning.
I didn’t tell my husband or my children. Better to wait and not worry them unnecessarily.
My internist was there, waiting for me when I went in the next morning. The radiologist sat beside him and I felt my pulse quicken at my throat. At 10:09 on a Friday morning I was given the diagnosis.
"I’m so sorry to have to say this.”
Is there any way to tell you how those few words made me feel, the fear that plunged deep within my heart?
"The mammotome confirmed what I feared.” What he feared? "
I found five tumors growing against the chest wall. You’ll need to have surgery as quickly as we can schedule it. Don’t worry about your insurance company giving you problems. I’ll handle all that.”
Did he truly think that my insurance company is what I was worried about at this moment? Did he really believe that I cared what some pencil pusher would say?
"So, it is cancer then?”
“Yes, sweetheart, it’s cancer.”
It amazes me that my doctor didn’t understand that when he uses terms of endearment, when he is affectionate or sympathetic, that’s when I’m the most scared. He was never cold or distant, but neither was he overly mushy as he was being now and it terrified me.
"Will surgery take care of it? Will we be able to get it all?”
“That’s certainly what we’re hoping, Gloria"
We’re hoping? What the hell does that mean? Hoping? Does it mean I might die? Does it mean I mostly likely will die?
“What are my chances?”
“Oh, we don’t like to give numbers or percentages, Gloria. Rather, we’d tailor treatment for your individual case. We’re always afraid that you could be limited in your recovery if we put actual numbers on it."
Damn it! “I’m the one that has cancer, Doc. I promise you that I’m a fighter,that I’ll do everything within my power to exceed whatever you tell me but I need, have to have, at least a ball park figure.”
“Without surgery, no chance.”
Uh…what? No chance?
“If you do nothing you will be dead by next summer without a doubt, but most likely by next spring.”
“And with surgery?”
“I don’t know. You’ll be referred to a surgeon then an oncologist. Both of them will handle your recovery after today.”
“You’re assuming I’ll have surgery. What if I don’t want it? What if I don’t want to be cut open?”
“Do you want to die, Gloria? Because I can guarantee you that’s what will happen.”
Is that what I wanted? Life hadn’t been a bowl of cherries lately. In fact, I’d been considering checking out anyway, hadn’t I? And if surgery and the treatment that would surely follow didn’t guarantee my survival, why go through it? My kids were grown, old enough to make me feel obsolete, in the way and I’d begun to feel guilty for even calling them, as if instead of being their mother, I was merely an intrusion in their oh-so-busy lives. My marriage was headed south, seeming to have lost all love and romance. We lived our marital life by rote, getting up each day, go to work, come home at night to fall asleep by ten only to repeat it all the very next day. Maybe it simply wasn’t worth the trouble.
“Tell you what, Doc, I’ll get back to you on that.”
He was still sputtering as I walked out the door into a world that hadn’t stopped revolving on its axis just for me.
I was surprised I wasn’t crying, screaming, throwing myself on the parking lot pavement. Maybe I was in shock.I walked into my house and dropped my purse on the floor. Then an amazing transformation began that I believe changed the course of the rest of my life. My mood went from “Who gives a damn” to “I want to LIVE, damn it” in less than an hour.
I called my husband first.
"Al, I just left the doctor, and it’s not good.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, remember I was going for a mammogram yesterday? It turns out I’ve got cancer.” And I began to cry, not soft, feminine tears of sorrow, rather harsh, hacking sobs of agony.
“Honey, I’ll be right there.”
He came in the door with his arms open, his eyes bright with as yet unshed tears. I’d never seen him cry and it touched me deeply that he would cry for me. Al held me until we both calmed down and I picked up my purse. He didn’t even ask where we had to go.
There was no easy way to break the news to my two daughters. The moment each young woman saw our faces they knew a tragedy had befallen our family. They cried for so many reasons: for the possible loss of their mother, the pain and suffering I would endure, and also for the legacy I had just given them with the increased risk of becoming a victim of cancer. The hardest task of all was telling my own mother. Her distress was so great that I wound up reassuring her and that was okay; I was her only daughter and she was terrified. Then the resolve that came over her after her outburst was nearly palpable. She once again became my mother, my defender, my support.
Before it was too late, I asked Al to use our digital camera to take photographs of my breasts. I had him take shots from every angle I was able to achieve, in every light I could imagine. I knew that I would never see them again so this was my way of dealing with the loss. I would grieve when it was over.
Because of the severity of the cancer, surgery was performed three days after diagnosis. I later learned there were a couple of mini-dramas that took place while I was in the operating room.
When my youngest daughter was putting my clothes into the small suitcase I’d brought, she began to cry when she touched my bra. While trying to comfort her, her father unknowingly made it worse.
“If you love her so much, you girls need to spend more time with your mother.”
“And you need to let her know if you still love her at all, Dad.”
I awoke to see three generations of faces around my bed, each one reflecting my own fear, each one representing a different facet of my life, but all of them filled with love. When I was released I asked that Al be the only one to be there to take me home.
“Please come by the house later, after I’ve had a nap because the ride home will be rough. I just want to go home as quietly as possible.”
The fear that my daughters would see the tubes hanging from my chest or my mother would pick up on the concentrated effort to not scream in pain was the reason I wanted them to wait. If I could’ve driven myself home I would’ve spared Al the problems, too. He may have to drive me but he sure wasn’t going to see the horror that had been done to me.
I felt the first strip of tape slip when I got home. By the time I got to the bathroom all the paper tape holding my tubes was falling off.
"God help me. I can’t change the tape myself. Oh God, I didn’t want him to see."
I stood before Al, my tears dripping onto his shaking hands and I stared into his eyes as I dropped my shirt. He didn’t flinch. His eyes filled with compassion and he leaned forward to ever so gently, with butterfly tenderness, to kiss the slashes on my chest.
“I never stopped loving you,Gloria. We just got caught up with . . . life. You’re still my wife, my partner, my everything. I’m so thankful I get to keep you. And I just fell in love with you all over again.”
I have to admit I was afraid it was only words, that as time passed and the fear faded, so would this reaffirmation of our feelings. But my daughters no longer take me for granted and my husband proves his love more with each passing day. After five years, I can only imagine how wondrous the next five will be.