For a week, I had breast cancer. From the night I picked up the message to call the imaging center until yesterday’s follow-up, I was once again a cancer statistic. I would be just one of the women who learned that her ovarian cancer had triggered breast cancer. Having either one predisposes a woman to having the other. (Ovarian cancer also has a genetic family link to prostate cancer in men and to colon cancer.)
I don’t fault the technician, who didn’t press hard enough. For the first time in my life, I was able to say, “That didn’t hurt,” when she’d finished with the left breast. I don’t fault the office manager who left that vague message to call “at my earliest convenience,” which, because I heard her message after business hours, wouldn’t be until the next morning. She’s not to blame that HIPPA rules don’t allow her to tell a patient anything definitive over a phone message.
No, I blame cancer, of course, and my overactive imagination, which has no censor once I’m asleep. I had a terrible nightmare after hearing the call: a comet-shaped mass was heading toward my left nipple. It was cancer.
Perhaps there are reasonable people out there who could dismiss the dream as simply processing the day. But more than five years ago I had a dream, shortly after my first cancer symptoms, about attending a baby shower, only to discover that the woman wasn’t pregnant, but carrying a cancer mass. My subconscious told me I had cancer, and ovarian cancer at that, though I suppose uterine cancer would have been the direct corollary, months before I had a diagnosis. I wrote down the dream, as I record all my dreams, and forgot about it until I rediscovered it during my end-of-the-year review.
So in the morning when I called the imaging center, I was not surprised to learn that they wanted some additional views of my left breast. I’d gotten that part right, leaving me to fret about what else I’d gotten right. I began making decisions about what I would do if the dream were accurate, having conversations in my head with my doctor.
In the last years of her life, my mother sometimes went to the emergency room and didn’t let me know until later. I’d begun to call every other day, but even that wasn’t enough. At one point, I asked, “How are you?” and she responded, “Well, I’m okay, now.” That’s how I found out she’d been to the emergency room and back in the 48 hours since I’d last talked to her.
My mother was not being manipulative. She simply didn’t see the need to let me know—what was I going to do about it? I lived almost 200 miles away; my brother was in the same city. I was out of the loop. Despite her excellent logic, I reamed her out and demanded that in future, I be kept informed. I could just imagine my brother calling, weeping to tell me Mom was gone, when I hadn’t even known she’d gone to the hospital.
I am one of the women who never wanted to be like their mothers. But now I am. I told no one about the call-back, trying to convince myself that, as had been the case some twenty years ago, it was merely my dense breasts causing the fuss. After several days I sent my priest, an unflappable woman who was my friend before she was ordained, an e-mail, so that she could pray for me.
I started not-telling people things after they found my second cancer, the nuisance one that isn’t dangerous but keeps coming back. It gets old, telling people you’ve got another cystoscopy, another surgery, another procedure. My new m.o. is Save it for the big stuff. Wait for a diagnosis. Be like Mary, whom Saint Luke says “pondered all these things [about the birth of Jesus] in her heart.” I am a champion ponderer, according to a friend who says I can’t not try to make meaning of everything, even though I accept intellectually the idea of randomness and chaos theory.
“You’ll know something before you leave,” the technician told me yesterday as we walked to the radiology lab. “The radiologist will come and speak to you.”
Well, that was new, and sounded ominous. She wanted three views of my left breast, and changed breast-mashers in between. I’d never noticed the different plastic trays hanging on the side of the machine, or I’d forgotten them. Because I’d been thinking of my mother, who always made tons of elaborate cookies for the holidays, I said, “Like cookie press tips.”
“Or cake decorating tips,” the tech agreed, which left me with my mother still, because she took a Wilton cake-decorating class and made the most amazing rosettes on all our birthday cakes thereafter.
Being alone in the room with a thin cape over my shoulders, waiting for the report, I had to distract myself. I had a book, of course, but was staring at the wallpaper border. Pansies, pale purple and yellow and white, nestled in muted clumps of green and brown. I don’t know much about flowers, but thanks to Louisa May Alcott, I know that another name for the pansy is heart’s ease. I was surrounded by heart’s ease, and took comfort in it, just as I’d taken comfort from the words of a psalm: “My body also shall rest in hope.”
The radiologist and the tech came in together. “I wanted to reassure you,” he began. “There’s no problem.”
I smiled at him. “That’s exactly what you were supposed to say.”
“I read the script,” he grinned, and I saw that he was handsome in a toothy way.
I couldn’t quite let it go. As the tech walked me back to the dressing room, I told her about my dream, and how glad I was this one was wrong.
As I’d waited, I’d glanced out the window and thought of that Buddhist saying Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. I had groceries and Christmas gifts to buy, regardless of the outcome. But I was able to leave with a light heart, call my priest with good news, and enjoy a day off.