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For the past week I have been reading a blog by an old childhood friend in the Netherlands. He is my age (42) and was successful, smart and enjoying life until he felt a hard lump in his side. In April he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and by way of saying that he had about six to ten months to live, the doctor told him: "If you ever wanted to go traveling around the world, now is the time..."

Reading his blog I have marveled at his guts and chutzpa, his will to live and his ability to still enjoy life, reading books, walking through the park, savoring food and being with friends. Amidst the grueling chemo and humiliations of feeling 82 rather than 42, there is plenty of humor and hardly any self-pity. Would I be able to exhibit that kind of grace under fire and would I be capable of accepting my life with the prospect of having so few prospects? We do not know these hypotheticals until we are placed in the same situation and this week I thought my time had come too...

After having been flattened by the mammography machine like your everyday road kill and me wondering, looking at my breast patties, "will they ever bounce back to their 'normal' already preposterous premenopausal shape?" I received a notice in the mail with the usual doctor speak: "Your recent mammography examination showed a finding that requires additional imaging studies for a complete evaluation." So I had a bad mammogram. Big deal. Everyone has one, at some point. Although, admittedly, that "finding" was not quite reassuring, but I put it out of my mind until the day of the appointment of the ultrasound, two weeks later. The morning I went in I was relaxed: was it my arrogance, the kind that has to do with feeling young, strong and healthy? Or was it self-delusion, the kind that keeps us from accepting reality for what it is?

On the bed, I hiked up my hospital gown (damn the man or woman who has designed those), propped it under my chin and exposed my right breast to the ultrasound technician. She probed it with the scanner that was sitting inside a latex glove and was covered with K-Y Jelly. Silence. I stared into space, or rather, at the cheerless and blinding neon lights that also hang in prison cells. More silence. The technician squinted, zero-ing in on something. Then there was the unmistakable tilt of the head, the clicking, another click. This was followed by a phony smile into my direction, a push back of the stool she was sitting on and the announcement: "I am going to fetch the doctor."

Five minutes went by. I wanted to sit up momentarily so I could look at the ultrasound myself but had no time because there was a firm knock on the door and a woman doctor dashing in.
"How are we doing," she exclaimed with false cheer.
"Fine!" I blurted out when the real thing I wanted to say was, "We – as in my tits and I—would rather be living it up, topless for all I care, on a reclining chair overlooking Big Sur on a perfect summer day...anything would be better than languishing on this narrow bed with K-Y dripping off my ailing chest." I was not amused. But I was silent in order to let science do its cold analysis, my breast being probed one more time by the ultrasound dildo. The silence was devastating and the technician hovered nervously over the doctor's shoulder. That did not help. The doctor clicked and clicked again, moving her mouse around—and then again, that tilt of the head. She spoke, using that most awful word in the English language:

"You have a mass..." MASS, euphemism for lump, tumor, cancer, death...This was followed by the standard encouragement: "Of course it could be anything and it may well be benign." More tilting of the head, Latin names for lumps, satellites. Satellites? There was a weird, nervous energy in the room and I began to get worried. The doctor asked for the day's schedule: "ideally we biopsy today..." The rush to squeeze me into her obviously tight schedule was at once reassuring and disturbing. Was it that fucking bad?

I was sent back into the waiting room and called Jon, my husband. The line was busy. I texted him: "tit test shows mass—may be biopsied this morning." My brain cells were firing snippets of incomplete thoughts, varying from how I would tell my mother, to what it would be like to live without breasts. Growing up as a tomboy, I was never big or hot about my breasts—they have always been more like well-behaved and quiet relatives: they are always there, you take them for granted, like toes or fingers, but once they are gone, you realize how much you loved them...and how much you need them to feel whole as a woman...

Jon and I once shared a house with an oncologist in New Haven when I was doing research at Yale and he told us over bagels and lax that breasts are just cancer reservoirs and if you don't have cancer yet, it might sooner or later end up in your breasts. "For that reason," he said, while sipping coffee, "we should just all pre-emptively lop 'em off."

In the waiting room, I tried to read a magazine but my mind was still racing and prioritizing. Why did we skip that family vacation one year? Why had I not made more time for writing more prolifically? Why did I not hug my children that morning? And yes, the rabid volunteering had to, friends, work but above all la dolce vita—where was mine? Why had I not lived a little more and worked a little less? Why...

"Mrs. Lake," the technician stuck her head around the corner, "We can squeeze you in now," almost in a whisper, as if we were sharing some godawful secret. I followed her like docile cattle, undressed and lay down on the same narrow bed, this time facing the ultrasound monitor. The doctor and technician were in a hurry, their schedule was packed for sure, would I sign the release form, was I allergic to lidocaine, (would I still be living next year, would I be present at my children's weddings, gay, straight, I did not give a fuck, all I wanted was to be there to see them off...?) Would I sign on the dotted line, could I hold up my arm behind my head, (did I realize that one's sex life does go on without breasts, was I religious?)
"Sharp sting," the doctor warned and the lidocaine went in to numb my breast. I looked at the monitor, there... that fuzzy stuff was my breast and inside was a dark black spot that was as big as a frigging grape. Embracing my mortality in the waiting room I had been reading an account by an oncologist who argued for letting large tumors be: cutting them out would suspend some form of symbiosis and bring on a faster demise. Who was I going to believe if this ominous black hole turned out to be an actual lump? How many second opinions does one collect to deny death?

The hollow biopsy needle went in and was, I saw then, approaching the black accursed grape. Someone, my guardian angel or imaginary nemesis with a sick sense of humor, started a drum roll in the corner of my mind as the needle approached the rim of the mass like a medieval knight sticking out his lance. Then the speedy resolution. Pop. The needle hit the rim and the grape popped and shrunk to the size of a mini-raisin.
"There's the water!" the doctor exclaimed as if that tiny bubble of water, aka cyst and quite common apparently, was going to end the entire drought in California and extinguish the fires in Santa Barbara on top of that.

After this, there were more ultrasounds and mammograms and finally the doctor's words that I could home again. I almost high fived her but decided against it because a patient was sitting there, waiting anxiously to be biopsied next.

As I walked out of the Kaiser facility I took a deep and cleansing breath. The moist, misty California fall air never felt this scintillating and clean. It was sparkling really, like champagne. I drank it in big gulps and felt giddy, thanking God, Buddha or whoever was out there that morning watching over me. My potential death verdict had turned into a valuable life lesson: to live a little more and work a little less. Fearing I might forget this again as my busy life took over from me, I decided to write this story down, to remind myself and all others out there who occasionally forget to savor the essence of the here and the now.


Member Comments

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Linni wrote Mar 14, 2009
    • you are so right! live today like its your last! love more, hug your children and husband more, and tell those you love “I LOVE YOU” more often..

      thank you for sharing your story!


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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      UK Girl wrote Mar 14, 2009
    • Honey as one who has Cancer ....... slow the run to a dance and smel tl the flowers and think of all the things that you’ve put off because your “too busy” ... too busy washing up or too busy ironing to actually enjoy the day ...

      I now skip through life in high heels because the height let you admire the view.

      At the moment Cancer is ripping through two very close in age cousins - they are either side of me and we all grew up together ..but knowing that their mother died of breast cancer and they had a massive chace of getting it they now both say they have lifed a full and great life..

      I believe God has a master plan and he pulls us up short to show us how to enjoy what he has made ... hope this helps.

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