In 2010, I went to the doctor for a routine mammogram. It was routine because I have been always told that my breasts were lumpy. This is what doctors usually told me. I never had any complaints from lovers but of course, I can’t recall any of them ever trying to intentionally give me a breast exam.
Because of my aforesaid lumpy girls, I was used to going for mammograms every six months. This particular time, it had been about 10 or 11 months since the girls were subject to the George Foreman meat press that is called a mammogram.
I remember everything about the appointment being normal and regular, until they called me in to have a doctor examine the girls using ultrasound. There was something about the doctor who strode into the room. I immediately sensed a driven personality. Or maybe he was just having a busy morning and the sudden interruption of having to be introduced to my breast would put him off schedule for the day. Maybe it wasn’t his fault. Or maybe I would have disliked anyone who was being called in to help me and was just going through the paces. View breast. Give speech. Exit room.
As I recall, he looked at the film, looked at the ultrasound and was silent for a few moments. I was less nervous than bored with the whole procedure and when we put the ultrasound wand down finally, I was just as eager as he was to get the hell out of there. I don’t remember if he tried to aspirate the lump – something I’d had that done to my poor lumpy oatmeal girls before. I do remember that this doctor tried with all his might to have a good bedside manner – while he was running seriously behind schedule – and said something like: you know there’s a little area here that we’re not sure about and it wouldn’t hurt to have it biopsied.
Wouldn’t hurt? Something about his tone just put me off. Like he was talking to a six-year old with a hearing problem. That, and when he said the word biopsied my entire body went into fight or flight mode. Suddenly, I was transported from a small women’s breast center in Plymouth, Minnesota to Grand Central Station, making my way to the 6:02 to New Haven and using my best New York attitude to get a seat. It was kill or be killed, maneuver or be out-maneuvered and plan on standing or worse – sitting in a 3-seater—all the way to Westport.
I looked at him rather coldly and said: what do you mean it wouldn’t hurt? I mean, do you really need to do this? You’re making it sound like you have nothing better to do?
This statement was quite ironic considering how not here now and preoccupied he had seemed during the whole encounter. But I just didn’t appreciate his condescending attempt at a sincere bedside manner when it was clear that he didn’t even realize he was talking to a person.
The life that suddenly jumped out of my body when I spoke to him slapped him awake. As I recall, he responded in kind: yes, I’m sure and I have better things to do but you still need a biopsy.
I wasn’t proud of myself and my sudden cavewoman outburst, and I think I apologized to him. But apologies were the least of my sudden onset worries. I started to cry and felt shaky. As the nurse was trying to set up an appointment for my biopsy, I just sat there. I don’t remember much about those moments after I heard I’d need a biopsy. But what stands out in my mind is that no one – not the nurse, not the doctor – thought to even put a hand on my shoulder and say it’s ok. Or, it’s not ok. Or shut the hell up. It was so odd. Granted, I hadn’t been the nicest patient but, hadn’t they seen that before? Was I really the first woman they had ever seen reacting that way?
At a moment when I so needed to be reassured, to have someone touch my potentially-cancerous body (which at that moment was still just raw cancerous potential), no one did. I know this because I would have remembered. I remember that the nurse handed me a box of Kleenex and didn’t say a word. Wait: she may have said here’s some Kleenex. I remember thinking to myself that I must really be weird to be acting like this because of the way they were acting. I also remember thinking that they acted like they had never told anyone before that they needed a biopsy. Or that I was the first person in history to cry when told they needed a biopsy. They seemed so unprepared when my lumpy boobs turned into a person with feelings. It was like they couldn’t handle all that because this was just a place you come to for procedures.
That was a long time ago. More than three years ago. But it is not something I will ever forget. It’s amazing how easily you forget the amazing kindness of people while thoughtlessness will sometimes sear itself into your memory. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with a very well-known author about his writing process. His rise to fame was quite sudden and in some ways, unexpected, although certainly not unwelcome. And he admitted to me that despite the positive accolades and the book award nominations, it was the occasionally nasty, one-star reviews on Amazon.com that he remembered. They stuck in his mind like Crazy Glue sticks to your fingertips when you finally get the damn tube open. He believed that our penchant to do that – focus on the negative and easily assimilate the positive – was some kind of survival instinct. Part of some evolutionary pattern that ensures we will always remember the bad and work to surpass it in our lives.
If that’s true (and I believe it is) then I guess best thing to come out of that memory is that I am working hard on both a cellular and evolutionary level to make sure I never need another biopsy. And according to my new friend, I am lucky not to have to read any nasty reviews on Amazon.com in order to make this evolutionary commitment.
So I have really gotten off track here, talking about biopsies and evolution when what I really wanted to talk about how I’ve not been myself for a while. Having breast cancer threw me into a new world of, well, survival. All those things that had always been important to me got shoved aside, like clothes in your closet that don’t quite fit anymore but that you still hang on to because they represent a time and a person you were and want so much to be again someday. This was true literally as well as figuratively.
Just before I was diagnosed, my weight, which usually hovered between 170 and 180 – certainly not light, but workable on a 5’6” frame with heels and good camouflage — took a surge upward. I was suddenly 199 pounds and really couldn’t account for the reason. True, I had a new job that was very stressful. True, I had been actively in love with a married man for several years which violated every sense of right and wrong I had ever known and which took a personal toll on me that I would have never anticipated. But gaining 19 pounds was crazy. It was almost like my body knew I had cancer and was laying in whatever protective framework it could think of to lighten the eventual blow. Like my body was trying to create a Twinkie Barrier. It didn’t work.