I skip out to the doctor’s office clutching the great book I am reading. It’s bad timing, but I have a prescription to fill and naturally I’ve left it to the last minute. The waiting room is absolutely packed. Some little kid is playing a video game that squawks old Macdonald over and over again in a high-pitched annoying electronic scratch.
But I am good at blocking the noise when I read: I used to study in the dining room with my little sisters running around me. My dad could never understand how I still got high marks.
However, even I am impatient after an hour or so. But I need that prescription. I am tempted to say I'll come back another time. The book IS good and I do want to see if my cholesterol and sugar levels are okay...
Finally I am led into the smaller office, where I wait again of course. I am still not finished the book, but now I am bored, so I sneak peaks at my blackberry under the sign that says, no cell phones. This is more fun.
When my doctor enters, he looks…well, strange. I can’t understand it. He’s been my doctor for thirty years and he’s usually smiling and affable. He sits down and barely says hello. So I fill the silence with my ramble…
“I just came for this prescription and then the nurse said why not get your flu shot too and I figured I might as well get the results of those tests though everything must be fine cuz I haven’t heard anything.”
His next words explain his hesitation and confusion. “No one called you?” he says.
“The results weren’t good, Cathy,” he says. “The biopsy shows cancer.”
I hit him (gently – one of those friendly punches). “You’re joking. Not funny.”
“I’m not joking.” He pulls up the chart on his computer. He shows me these three words: invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer.
“Oh.” I can feel the blush spreading into my white British face; my high blood pressure is probably actually high right now. I had almost forgotten about the damn biopsy – that was two months ago. Isn’t no news good news? It appears not. “Well, that sucks. But how is my cholesterol?”
That’s all fine. Here I was hoping my doctor would say, your cholesterol and sugar are terrible, you better lose that 50 pounds, go see Dr. Bernstein, I’ll pay for it. Not this.
I never thought my body would be so stupid as to choose the wrong cell division. Not to mention, we just don’t have cancer in our family. We have lots of other things, but not the big C. That’s what other families have.
The doctor is telling me stuff – how he’s really sorry, how he’d depended on the surgeon assigned to my case to call me, how he’s going to get things moving through his incredible right-hand, Judith – he’s mumbling something about lumpectomy or mastectomy and radiation and/or chemo – I’m watching his mouth move and I really think I am listening. Most of it, however, just doesn’t record. Besides, somebody probably made a big mistake.
I feel fine. I have my usual energy. I have no pain, no lump, no signs at all. Don’t they give you signs to follow?
I drive to the pharmacy, hand in the prescription, and tell them I’ll pick it up tomorrow. Then I drive home.
As soon as I walk in the door, I am gob-smacked. There’s the carpet with the green and peach flowers that I got from my mother. There’s my daughter-in-law’s Gemini and my Bony Pete. Here are all the pictures of my daughter and son and step-sons and grandchildren and my family and friends. The house is cozy and quiet; I can see the top of Vince’s head from where he sits in the armchair in front of the window, reading. The cats tumble down the stairs to greet me.
“Hey, honey, how’d it go?” my husband’s voice is cheerful and happy; he’s always so glad to have me back home.
I start to cry. He’s immediately there, his arms wrapped around me, tugging at my jacket, asking anxiously what’s wrong what’s wrong.
I tell him "I thought I was fine – ‘til I got home". That's when I realized I would have to speak this out loud to my beloved soul mate, this gentle, sweet man whose heart will be so bruised. Even worse, I discover I'd forgotten to set the record button on what the doctor said. Details might help, but I have none. I do remember the three words though: invasive ductal carcinoma. I blurt it out and Vince's face crumples. Those soft brown eyes well with tears and shock.
We go right to the Internet, but it doesn’t give much comfort. “Invasive means that the cancer has “invaded” or spread to the surrounding breast tissues. Ductal means that the cancer began in the milk ducts, which are the “pipes” that carry milk from the milk-producing lobules to the nipple. Carcinoma refers to any cancer that begins in the skin or other tissues that cover internal organs — such as breast tissue. All together, “invasive ductal carcinoma” refers to cancer that has broken through the wall of the milk duct and begun to invade the tissues of the breast. Over time, invasive ductal carcinoma can spread to the lymph nodes and possibly to other areas of the body.”
Great. Now those two months that have passed feel like a terrible neglect. On my part and on the part of that damn surgeon’s office. Never assume no news is good news.
We study the alternatives: okay, the doctor said surgery for sure, but there are just so many choices. An extensive menu in a restaurant you never wanted to sample. There are stages and semi-stages until the last choice, which is not a stage I want to contemplate.
Damn, I say, I’m too busy for this. I have places to go, things to do, people to see.
We stumble through the night, cuddling and kissing, quiet. I tell Vince that the surgeon (not the damn one, the one who did the biopsy) said the thing (is it called a tumor??) was so tiny he could barely get the needle into it, because they were about the same size. So how the hell did they find what they say they found? I am back to believing it’s a mistake.
Early the next morning, Judith calls. Nope, no mistake. IDC. But she has lived up to her high recommendation: she switches from the damn surgeon to one that she’s dealt with before - her own mom went through breast cancer with him. Their office isn't open on Fridays, but she will make sure I get action early on Monday.
The weekend gapes before us. Bloody hell. We have so much planned.
At first I think I should just go ahead with the plans and not say anything to anyone.
Then I start reading. Cancer is not a disease, says one article; it’s your body speaking to you, telling you you’ve done bad things to it. I hope they don't mean the red wine. How about pasta with cream sauce? I lie down on the bed and speak softly to my right breast, feel the rolls clinging to my poor tough little frame; too much over-indulgence and too little exercise. I apologize profusely. I can change, I tell all my parts. Really, I can. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.
Breast cancer, if it spreads into the lymph nodes, can be...
But oh, although I have discarded the religious institution in which I grew up, I believe so firmly in positive energy and in love, that I stop reading and am immediately heartened. I can do this. It’s just a crappy bump in the road. I pick up my favourite book once more, A Book of Insight, and remind myself yet again about The Source of joy, love and well-being.
I call my friend Merci, who was a nurse and whose calm reassurance and advice are legendary. She suggests very strongly that I do tell my children. We are supposed to grandchild-sit tonight, but I will ask my daughter to come here with the little ones instead.
My daughter, son, daughter-in-law, all cry when I tell them, and we do too. But not for long. We end up in laughter, wrapping that palpable love all around each other, a living, breathing thing that feels like a warm blanket of protection.
On Saturday we don’t tell anyone because we are celebrating my VBFITWWW’s birthday. At the spa, I am surrounded by these smart, funny, lovely women and I bask in their glow. By Sunday night, most everyone knows: I call as many as I can, then craft an email for the rest. I wonder if it’s tacky to announce it on Facebook?
Once the extroverted side of me begins to leak, it wants to get the telling over and out there as fast as possible, a waterfall of words that make the reality too close but which help release the dam of shocked dismay.
Pretty quickly, I realize a few things.
I much prefer “talking” through my fingers. As a writer, I guess this is natural; it probably creates a bit of distance, too – but that helps me stay positive, so I decide it’s okay.
My sisters are as amazing and loving and strong and smart as I always knew they were. Cindy comes right over armed with herbal remedies and love; Chris talks and makes me laugh and calls again and gives me so much information; Kim calls and writes and meets me for dinner and hugs me so hard it almost squeezes the fear out of me. I wander the house in the Breast Cancer sweatshirt my sister Candace gave each of her sisters before she died.
I am astonished at the number of stories and the willingness to share. I learn so much in a short few days that my head is spinning. So many successful, dynamic, incredible women have been through this and worse, yet get right up and not only embrace the world but each other as well. I am enveloped in pink light, as my cousin says, and it emanates from these astounding females with whom I am connected.
Although I have always thought I was lucky, this last week has shown me just how very fortunate. Family and friends and colleagues and acquaintances have heaped me with love and joy and hope. I am buoyed up by their belief, prayer, and affection. We have laughed and looked up at the sun and smiled and danced. They send me images and mottos to ponder, beautifully crafted success stories to read. They offer to come and take care of me when I need them. They give their positive energy freely and adamantly.
I walk in this sudden lovely warm weather, my husband holding my hand, and I feel wonderful.
Sometimes in the dark of night, the fear creeps in a little – a small, nasty voice that tries to scare me into feeling sad and uncertain. I banish it easily because the warm whispered love of my husband, my family and my friends fills my ears and floods my whole body with strength.
We breeze through the pre-op meeting with my family doctor. He is reassuring and efficient. Judith has all the paperwork ready; she’s kind and helpful. Thursday, pre-op at the hospital; next Tuesday, surgery. Sounds like fun.
Got a lot of talking, walking, laughing, dancing and completing to do in these next few days!