Cancer Scare


My boobs are not THAT big.  And they were only looking at one of them.  But the mammogram was a 3-hour event, started with me in a room full of braless smocked women awaiting their big squish; ended with me still there alone.  It’s a little stressful when everybody has gone home except YOU.  This is what it’s like when the mammo outgrows "screening" and becomes "diagnostic," which I guess is medicalspeak for "there’s gotta be something here and we’re not stopping ’til we find it." 

If you have not partaken of the peculiarities of mammography, it’s this weird situation where you go into the little x-ray room, they squish your boobs and then send you back to the freezing cold waiting room while the "films" are taken to faceless doctors in the back who analyze them.  The waiting room is an interior one, at my hospital it’s windowless.  It’s sort of timeless, but private, and democratizing – we’re all the same under the hospital gown smock things, all braless, acting casual but wondering if this is the year that they (the boobs, that is) try to kill us. 

It’s a rite of passage. The boobs always represented a kind of female power to me.  Meaning that if you wear the right thing (or, perhaps, the wrong thing) you can actually watch as a man loses concentration because your girls are so distracting.  This can be annoying, as anyone who has spent half a lifetime thinking, and sometimes SAYING, "up here, my face is UP HERE" in conversations with men.  But once in a while it’s kinda fun, too.  (admit it). 

Well, forget that.  The boobs aren’t for fun anymore.  They’re now evil cancer farms, sleeper cells for the worst kind of insurgency I can think of. 

Anyway, it’s that hospital thing we’re you’re half-undressed and feeling powerless and did I mention freezing cold?  And if you’re having a normal mammogram, they take pictures once and send you home.  But if not, the tech keeps coming for you (while sending bunches of other lucky girls home) and taking more pictures, and for each re-take there’s one of your "films" up on the light box, and you squint fearfully at it (while standing there topless) trying to see what the hell they are trying to get a better picture of.   

Between ultrasounds and boob x-rays, sometimes I wonder if it’s all pretend, that they can’t see a damn thing and are just making it up, like that Paul Simon song "The Myth of Fingerprints" – "I’ve seen ’em all, and man, they’re all the same."

I always imagine the doctors in the darkened room looking at my x-rays "Holy shit!  Check this out!" "Whoa!" "I’m not gonna tell her – YOU tell her." "No way, man, YOU tell her" and then doing rock-paper-scissors to see who has to tell me the bad news.

Eventually I got ushered in to see the radiologist, bless his heart. He introduces himself this way: "Hi, I’m Dr. blah-blah-blah-Everything’s Fine."  I honestly don’t remember his name unless "everything’s fine" is part of it. 

Turns out there is this knotty little "area of density" in Right Boob that has already been biopsied but continues to need as much coverage as Paris Hilton, so they smushed and squished and took as many pics of it as they felt they needed, which was three separate re-takes and trips back to the waiting room for me.  It’s like getting called back after the audition, only this is a job nobody wants to get.  I get this flushing thing when stressed so I sat in the mammo waiting room freezing in the air conditioning reading a fat library book with a very red face until "Everything’s fine!" they finally let me go. 

But hurray for them, they really want to make sure all is well in the boob; they have a big old x-ray machine and they’re not afraid to use it.  I’m feeling quite rejuvenated and happy to get out of the mammogram drama for another five months.  I hope that after a few more appointments it’ll recede from being the gargoyle in my appointment book to become just a routine annoyance again.

Audrey Raines is not the only woman left behind.  Once again, I am looking at many empty months without Jack.  It’s not what you think – Kiefer Sutherland isn’t exactly hot (to me).  My attachment to him is a little more complicated than that. 

It all started last February with the treadmill.  I was so depressed and out of shape that we put it in front of the TV and I went and rented a movie – "War of the Worlds," the new version with that couch-jumper Tom Cruise – and the movie is so out-of-hand pee-your-pants terrifying that I was walking for an hour before I looked at the time.  I quickly ran through any other movie I could think of that was scary, and thought I’d try "24", which I had never watched.  YOW.  I couldn’t quite figure out what was the big deal about the whole "real time" concept of the show until I watched it, but you just have to watch it, if you haven’t, to understand how much it grabs you. 

So now, in our house, a "Jack Bauer" is a unit of exercise, as in "I just did two Jack Bauers, let’s order pizza."  The next thing you know I watched all the way through all four seasons of "24," and moved on to "Alias", and got to the end of five seasons of Syd just last month.  Somehow through some happy accident I’ve been able to harness the powers of addiction to accomplish something good, because I can’t WAIT to get back on the treadmill, elliptical, whatever, so I can get my Jack on.  Somehow I saved all the Jacks and the Sydneys for working out, and didn’t just binge on them like I did on that Naga bar from Vosges Chocolat that I thought I’d just nibble on for a few days  (ridiculous thought).  I did make a few exceptions; I allowed myself some Jacks during delayed plane flights, for example, so I didn’t rip off the flight attendants’ heads when the pilot started spouting airline doubletalk like "we’ll be pushing back in just a little while folks, and then we’ll be wheels up in 510 minutes" which I think means "you will grow old and die on this plane."

It’s hard to figure out what it is about Jack – I can pretty much predict when he’s gonna say DROP THE WEAPON or DAMMIT! or my personal favorite I GIVE YOU MY WORD / YOU’RE GONNA HAVE TO TRUST ME.  Jack talks in all caps most of the time.  The body count is generally astonishing, and after two Jacks in a row or more I start feeling kind of weird and violent (and I liiiiike it, how scary is that).  But it’s so seductive to watch Jack save the world.  I can’t get pregnant, or lose even one pound, I can’t even get the cat to barf on the bare floor instead of the carpet, but Jack can stop the missile sequences, and Chloe can hack into the State Department, and it’s just so damn satisfying.  Throw in the fact that I’m putting in 44 minutes of medium-to-high intensity cardio for every episode, and everybody wins. 

Now Jack’s been dragged off by the Chinese, and Syd is retired, and I’ve probably got until December until Season 6 comes out on DVD, with a lot of elliptical miles between now and then to fill.  I almost know how Audrey feels.

It seems to have been a brutal couple of years for my friends.  In the wide circle of my acquaintance and the tighter one of my close friends I have seen two women die of breast cancer, a third be diagnosed with metastatic cancer (two of these before age forty), several miscarriages, some hideous broken relationships, death of a few parents, tragic car accidents, a few failed IVFs and other ravages of infertility, and now this: my friend J., after years of infertility, gave birth to a little girl who seemed healthy but has now been diagnosed with a severe heart defect that has threatened her life.   In this company we are all affected by the hospital-visiting, funeral-attending, meal-making and other practicalities.  We’re more seriously affected by the fear, the draining effects of shared grief, and the spiritual rigors that all this puts us through.  Say it again, God is good all the time.  How, exactly, does that work in the midst of … this?

I don’t know.  But the vulnerability of these women, myself included, is starting to make sense.  As I approach our IVF and the real likelihood of a pregnancy, I notice that my exposure to heartbreak and loss increases exponentially.  I first experienced this when deciding to get married.  I had to become willing to lose my husband before I could be willing to join my life with his.  It’s not just picking out wedding rings, in the long, long view, it’s also knowing what his funeral arrangements will be, and letting him know mine.  Grim?  You bet.  But I had a deep unease in my heart until I understood that marriage here on earth doesn’t have a good ending.  I’d rather be parted from him by death than by divorce, but those are my two options.  It’s easy to think we’re scared of the commitment, and run from it – but it’s actually the end of the commitment that scares me.  We can count on it ending, so maybe can we beat that loss by never beginning?  Except I’ve tried that and it sucks.

So here we are, as the Indigo Girls put it "My friends and I have had a tough time," and it’s starting to make a little bit of sense.  As women, we tend to value our human connections very highly, and the older we get, the more we’re able to accumulate.  It’s our wealth.  My husband is "typically" male in many ways and if you ask him where his profit centers are, and how his wealth is being generated, he’ll tell you about the value of our house, his retirement plan, and our other assets.  But I’m starting to realize my wealth is in my friendships, my family of origin, and my future children.  It’s relationships that generate wealth for me, and many women I know: love, community, having a place in that sticky web of being known and knowing.  As we have moved through our thirties our opportunities to amass wealth have grown with the additions of husbands and children; each addition is a profit center of its own, bringing more relationships and increasing our connections, sometimes with exponential growth.  And each relationship exposes us to more loss. 

So, yes, my friends and I have had a tough time, but I have had this nagging feeling that this is all real life.  Real life is scary, and contains monstrosities like 38-year-olds being diagnosed with stage IV cancer and longed-for babies with profound health problems.  But it’s like this everywhere (except in less wealthy countries, where it is far, far more hideous).  Our rate of friends-with-cancer, miscarriage, parental death, and the other grab bag of miseries is painful, awful, untenable – and about normal.  And when it’s not, when the cancer report is benign or the difficult person suddenly apologizes, I start worrying anyway; if I get this break, another shoe will fall.  Only a question of time.  We’re just vulnerable, because we have all this relational wealth and no promise whatsoever that it will be safe. 

The Bible is pretty hard on wealth, in fact, telling us all over the place that our treasures can be stolen or destroyed, or that the rich person is to be pitied and has a tougher job getting to God.  Should I shun earthly riches and shut myself in the house and take all that Scripture literally?  Except, uh, I tried that and it didn’t work either.

I don’t know.  The only way to enjoy the wealth is now.  I have a big glorious necklace made out of big red glass hearts and bauble-icious red & gold beads that I made more than 10 years ago and have never worn because it’s just too fabulous, and because of Joe Fuqua.  Joe was an early maven of taste from my college days and he told me that his grandmother told him to "put on all your jewelry and then take off one piece."  What’s better than advice from a gay guy?  Advice from a gay guy’s grandma.  We were going to a nice place for Valentine’s Day but it wasn’t Buckingham Palace, and usually I would have pulled that necklace out and wistfully put it back again. But then I thought about the little baby who might not need a college fund or a cheerleading uniform, the forty-year old killed by a car on a sunny afternoon, the women on the other end of some of the other phone calls my radiologist had to make two Mondays ago, and I put that necklace on and it looked just great.   

The doctor called, the biopsy report is benign, the cancer scare is officially over.  Not to beat the whole shoe reference to death, but there isn’t another big ole Stride Rite hanging over my head.  Or at least not one that I can see coming. I should have said "Manolo Blahnik" but I never watch "Sex and the City" and I don’t think I could recognize one; I am so not cool that way. 

I learned a lot about me and other people during the Cancer Scare; I will not go into it, because much of it is conjectural.  How one feels and acts when confronted by maybe-having-cancer is sort of instructive, but it probably isn’t proof of how one would feel and act when it’s the real thing.  Since I hate it when people not confronted by infertility and its losses give me counsel, or tell me they understand how I feel, I can’t venture to say that I know very much about really having cancer just by having a few scary medical reports and a biopsy that turned out fine.  Of course the whole thing was much better for me, body and soul, than a normal month, during which God usually lets me have almost everything I want and I barely appreciate it. 

But I’m so, so glad it’s over. 

I think I have 2 readers.  Maybe 3.  So this was the time to change the name of this blog which has always been lame.  The name, not the blog.  (How a comma changes things.)  I decided I might change the name during the cancer scare, which is almost over, more about that in a minute, because breast cancer in the middle of infertility is indeed another shoe of large and unjust magnitude.   But for anyone who wonders what the shoe reference is all about, here is a neat description of it.  My experience with the shoe is that the waiting is worse than the shoe.  Also, in a life of any length or interest, there is at least a spider if not a centipede living above; there are and will be many shoes, and we might just as well go to sleep and let the shoes fall where they may.  Easier said than done, of course.

So the cancer scare, and I’m calling it that just a bit prematurely, got worse when I did some internet research.  I know, I know, that’s rarely a good idea.  But I stand by it, because I learned some things I needed to know about breast cancer.  Like: lots of women do not die from it.  This may sound basic, but it isn’t.  There seems to be this window of danger, through which many of my friends are passing, or have passed, and which took a few of us.  Breast cancer, when it comes in one’s thirties, seems to take more lives than when it comes later.  To me it looks like this is because girls under 40 don’t often get mammograms, and when the cancer comes it doesn’t get caught in time.  This is why some of the girls I know with cancer didn’t make it, and why most of my friends are scared to death of breast cancer.  We don’t know very many older girls, those tough, grown-up lumpectomy girls with treated cancer who are living the happy ending, or at least the happy middle. 

The internet research showed me good news about cancer – the one that mine could be is very treatable, because we would have caught in on the mammo – and bad news about my particular "finding", which is not a lump but an "area" with jagged edges.  That was scary, and I found that "areas" like mine are more often malignant (75%-85% of the time) than lumps, which are 80% benign.  All this despite the fact that God or Comcast took my internet away for several days, so I couldn’t freak myself out; but I persisted, went to coffee shops, and got this good news / bad news picture of the cancer possibilities, and came to terms.  Sucks to have cancer, good to have treatable cancer, sucks to put the IVF off, good to be able to get back to it eventually.  Sucks for it to be me, but then who would I pick instead?  My single-over-40 friends, with bad insurance?  My friends with kids and huge responsibilities?  Sucks that it has to be anybody, but right now I guess it does.  Why me?  Well, why not me? 

Except maybe it’s not me.  Finally the day of my biopsy came, and the radiologist told me she didn’t even see the jaggedy edges in the "area" that had looked so worrisome, and I’m almost confident that Monday’s phone call will be good news.  So the other shoe hasn’t dropped yet, and yes: there will be many shoes, but maybe not this one, right now.

My husband and I have a bottle of champagne left over from the holidays.  We were going to crack it open once I got the all-clear after my second set of mammograms yesterday but we didn’t.  Get the all-clear, that is.  There is definitely something in my right breast; it’s small and doesn’t show up on all views and believe me, they got as many views as they could.  I thought they were going to have me stand on my head.  Anyway, it might be nothing but it might be something and I have to have a special biopsy because it’s so hard to get to and did I mention it’s really small?  Hardly anything about me is petite, but this unidentified thing is less than 1 cm, which means if it were, y’know, uh, cancer, it would be called "minimal."   I’m thinking it can’t be that scary since I begged to be "squeezed in" for a biopsy right away, and the biopsy people couldn’t do it.  I ended up with their "next available", which is January 31st; 2 weeks from yesterday.  Like any marathon runner, I must now adjust my pace.  No way can I maintain yesterday’s level of freakout for 2 more weeks.  So… I’m accentuating the positive.  I’m thinking they’re putting the big-lump "hello I’m cancer" x-ray biopsy people ahead of my petite little mysterious and vague "area of density" and if I had really scary Xrays I’d get fast-tracked. 

So this blows our IVF right out of the water, at least a cycle or so.  And strangely enough, this is OK with me because I am fat.  Fa-aaaa-aaat.  I’ve got the Christmas 1 or 2, on top of the birth control pills 5-6, which joined the post-marriage / honeymoon 8-10.  When I think of how, on my wedding day, I thought I could / needed to drop 10 more lbs, I laugh in a craven, whimpering sort of way.  Getting back into my wedding dress is all I will ever achieve, I think, because I am really good at gaining weight.  I gain weight on WW, or while eating healthy and working out.  I gained weight during marathon training.  If anybody out there needs someone to gain weight for them, I have probably already done it; if only there was a way for me to get it to you.  And I was supposed to start Lupron, aka menopause-and-weight-gain-in-a-bottle, on Saturday.  So this is my chance, for the last time since the last time, again, to take off weight now so I can put it back on later.  Therefore: no IVF, no Lupron, no biopsy for a little while yet; and definitely no champagne.

So we’re back from a long trip and I should be opening the FedEx box on my dining room table to look at the yummy fertility meds within.  I expect my doctor’s office to generate a calendar for our IVF any day now, which might require me to start the drugs within a few weeks.  But I’m in an uproar, since I stupidly scheduled my mammogram for December 20th.   I came home yesterday to a letter accompanied by a scary-looking medical report which says that I need to return to get more pictures of an "area of density" in my right breast.  After a little bit of internet research I think this means that they want to figure out of this is something bad, something sort of bad, something not bad, or nothing at all.   Of course, the soonest appointment I can get is February 1st which sucks.  I have a call in to my doctor so I can ask her that Stupid Patient Question: "Should I be worried about this?"  and what doctor is going to say "Hey, yeah!  You need to start FREAKING OUT."   But – like every other American woman in her 40’s – I have seen friends get breast cancer, bravely fight, and die anyway. 

I guess I was not stupid to schedule my mammogram for Dec. 20th, I could have been even stupider and blown it off completely.  But oh, I wish I had done it sooner, so I could have gotten through all this before now.  I am pretty sure that this will turn out to be nothing – this is only a vague shadow on the mammogram, and the scary report wants me to return to see if this is even a "real finding" and assures me that "no new dominant mass or suspicious clustered microcalcifications are identified."  But still… unless somebody cancels and I call at the right time to pick up a sooner appointment, I am going to have to delay my IVF yet again.   

This incident is helpful since my spiritual connection is not so good right now.  I am having trouble thinking of God as a force for safety and good… I have watched Him allow good women to die from cancer.  Who knows how many He has healed?  I don’t.  It’s way too easy to dwell on the bad news.  And of course, I’m not on that higher plane that accepts death as an upgrade, a chance to skip all this earthly mess and be in glorious intimacy with Him forever.  I am so not there.  It’s hard to be ethereal and spiritual when I’m struggling with the basics.  Fertility is about earth energy, that’s what all the tai chi kung yin yang yoga people say, and they’re right.  It’s blood, and sex, and pain, and labor and all that is primitive and female and it makes us feel powerful when it goes well.  I feel like I just got here, and that there is still so much of my life that hasn’t started.  I guess everybody feels like this.  I am scared of dying and scared of chemo and who isn’t?  But I also don’t want the shame of one more of my female parts failing, or in this case threatening my life. 

I need to remember something, or to learn it for the first time, that God is good all the time.  Even if this goes very badly.