Wednesday, October 16, 2013

My Cancer Story

Everybody has a cancer story. I think it's safe to say there isn't one person in American that hasn't had cancer or known somebody with it. This is mine.

I was surprised at how easily I found the Breast Cancer Center at the hospital. As I walked toward the automatic sliding doors I thought how incredible it is that there’s an entire wing of the hospital just for breasts. Why isn't there a kidney center, heart center, lung center? Were breasts more diseased than any other body part? Or is it because society is vain? Maybe both I decided.

I was glad to be there, for two weeks the thought of a lump in my breast hung over my head. My intuition told me it was nothing but I wanted to be sure so I wouldn't have to worry about it anymore.

A week earlier I had my first skin biopsy. I’d always had a few of what I described as blood moles on my left breast, but they had begun to change colors, clear, brown, yellow. They started to change size and position on my chest, like a moving constellation of dark and light stars. I made Mike go with me to the dermatologist, as if it’s any less awkward to have another man look at your boobs since your husband is in the room. Yeah, it was awkward.

The doctor was young and energetic, full of pep. I wished he could be a little more somber in reflection that I was not happy to be there. Without any announcement he opens the front of my gown and I’m not letting go, clenching the material to my chest.

“We’re going to have to take a look” he cheers. I give up without saying anything, but I’m thinking, geez, at least give me some warning so I can prepare myself.

“Looks like lymphangioma, I’m 99% sure that’s what it is.” He announces.

“What is that?” I say. He says a lot of things I don’t understand but what I do gather is it’s a completely harmless, genetically passed, skin disorder that has no relation to cancer.

“Of course we won’t know for sure until the biopsy results come back, but I’m 99% that’s what it is.” He repeats.  “I’m going to use a laser to remove part of it, you’ll just have some scar tissue, but it’ll look a heck of a lot better than it does now.” Somehow I’m not comforted. He turns on bright lights above my head and I smell burnt flesh as the smoke drifts past my nose. A week later it was confirmed lymphangioma and benign. But I still had to wait another two weeks to find out about the lump.

My Aunt had melanoma when she was around my age. Since then she’s had countless moles removed, and several surgeries. I told her about the lymphangioma and asked her if I should keep burn ointment on the scab or let it dry? How bad will I scar? Is this a big deal? She said,

“Let the scab dry, it will look wonderful once the scab falls off, you won’t even know it was there. This is no big deal, you’re lucky they burned it off instead of cutting you and giving you stitches, it’s going to be fine.” And she was right.


As I’m lying next to the ultrasound machine the technician comments on my scab. I explain to her its lymphangioma and that it’s nothing to worry about, it will look better once it’s healed. The worst part is holding my breath as she moves the ultrasound wand over the lump. I can feel the gathering of hard tissue as she presses it into my rib cage  It‘s a conundrum to me that I can press with my finger, and feel this ball on the inside as well as with the tip of my finger on the outside, like a double sensory, or being in two places at once. After taking pictures on the computer screen she says she will be back with the radiologist. I exhale and relax as she leaves the room.  

When I see the radiologist I’m glad he’s an older man, thin, with grey hair. He asks me to show him the lump, and I press on it again with my fingertip. He takes another ultrasound, repeating the steps of the technician, but begins pointing out things to her.

“See, here there are two cysts, look, superior and inferior. Did you measure them separately?”

“No” she says and they begin to measure again. My heart begins to race, does cyst mean cancer? I don’t know, but I don’t think he would have said it so casually if it was something to worry about. Maybe cyst means something else? Finally he turns to me.

“Well, you have two cysts, but they are nothing to worry about. Just keep an eye on them, if it begins to hurt, or they get very large, come in again, and we’ll take another look.” I wanted to be relieved, but I didn't understand how he could know it wasn't cancer from a picture, so I asked if he would explain.  He answered

“Your lumps are black on the screen, completely black, that means they’re filled with water. It’s common. Cancer has tissue and so it appears grey on the screen, those are the ones we want to check out.” I wanted to say, you went to school so you could learn the difference between black and grey? Although snarky in my mind, I was grateful, and relieved.   

I felt like I was bouncing all the way back to the dressing room. As I slid the gown off my shoulders, my scab didn't look so disgusting, it no longer bothered me that this part of my body was literally disfigured. Its okay, I thought, it doesn't matter because it won’t hurt me. It’s not hurting me, and it’s not making me sick, I’m healthy, that’s what I care about.  

As I exited the doors to the IMC Breast Center, I thought I no longer feel like a teenager. All my twenties up until this time at 28, I have felt like I was a teenager stuck in an adult’s world and all I wanted to do was go back to the days when I was thin and irresponsible. That day, I felt like an adult, a grown woman. Finally, I had my rite of passage.

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