My Third Eye: One Woman's Vision of the Great Mystery

Via the Paths of Creativity, Cancer, Folly & a Wild LOVE OF LIFE

Jane Underwood

Jane Underwood
San Francisco, California, USA
October 08
The Writing Salon
I'm a mother, writer, photographer (amateur), and owner of The Writing Salon, a school of creative writing for adults, in San Francisco. I'm also a woman living with breast cancer (since Aug. 2005), working to heal myself (and to understand just what that means, REALLY). Since I'm beginning this blog six years after my breast cancer journey began, the first post is a flashback to that fateful day. The rest of this blog will be, I suspect, a kaleidoscopic mix of past and present, as I refer to the first six years of living with breast cancer... but also focus on the present. And the present contains a whole lot more than just breast cancer. So be forewarned: I will frequently digress.


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SEPTEMBER 16, 2011 12:29PM

My Ache - A Post-Mammogram Epiphany (Flashback to 2005)

Rate: 21 Flag

When I arrive at the hospital, everything bodes surprisingly well. I locate and enter the parking lot that I worried I wouldn't know how to enter or pay for, then successfully navigate my way to the right elevator, then through the maze of hallways, and finally to the correct suite of "imaging" rooms. Although I have lived for more than 25 years in San Francisco, which is not really all that big of a city, I am still a small town mid-western girl at heart, still not at ease with the plethora of urban options even when they are confined solely to one large hospital.   

My waiting room experience also goes surprisingly well. According to Cosmopolitan magazine, Christie Brinkley attributes her trim physique to vegetarianism, Jennifers Lopez and Aniston both pump iron, and Halle Berry does power yoga. The mammogram goes well, too.    

But the TV-like screen of the ultrasound machine presents a view of my left breast that reveals a distinct black mass. The mass quivers, shifts, disappears and reappears as the radiologist moves a rectangular metal sensing device back and forth over the quadrant in question. When, after a minute or two, the doctor doesn't turn to me and cheerfully announce, "All right, all done!" — when, instead, he silently and intently proceeds to push numerous buttons and switches, in order to further scrutinize the lump, I feel my first jolt of unease.      

Is this the lump that every woman dreads?     

I inwardly answer this question in a calm, matter-of-fact tone: Possibly. And why not? You aren't immune. It could happen to you as well as anyone. But my wet armpits and racing heart are arguing with Ms. Matter-of-Fact.   

As the clicking of the ultrasound grows louder, something odd happens. Although I am lying down, I feel as if I am standing...and forcing myself to stand up even straighter, then to square my shoulders. As soon as I do this, a veil of cobwebs falls away from me, and everything that is truly important in my life flashes before my eyes. Unmade decisions and unanswered questions that have been eating at me for weeks, months or even years suddenly seem simple to decide, to answer.

Should I spend the money sooner rather than later to visit my son who lives thousands of miles away in another country, even though I fear I can't afford it? Yes.

Should I continue to fret about my lopsided haircut? No.

Should I continue planning for my first-ever trip to Paris next summer? Yes.

Should I go on stressing because I'm afraid the car won't pass smog inspection? No.

Should I spend more quality time with my dear Significant-Other, Jack? Yes.

Should I continue to procrastinate and make myself miserable over the dread of doing my business taxes? No.

And so on down the list. Yes, no, no, yes, no no yes no yes. There. All done. Now I can move on to the next order of business, which will be . . . what? Chemotherapy? Radiation? Mutilation?

Everything is clear. Do I want to live? Yes.

Do I have a lot to live for? More than ever.

Can I handle whatever comes next? Sure.

Can I, really? Maybe I'm just on some kind of surreal automatic pilot function that kicks in when fear addles your illusion of reality.

The ultrasound reveals that the lump in question is not fluid-filled. Huh? "Fluid would be good," the radiologist explains. "But this mass is palpable, and that's worrisome. We need to send you over to the biopsy clinic for a needle aspiration. "


"Right now."

I return to the dressing room, take off the hospital gown with its blue and white symmetrical design that reminds me of my father's boxer shorts long ago, put my sweater back on, and feel a hint of dizziness. I look in the mirror to make sure I am really there, smooth a stray strand of hair, and note that most of my lipstick is still on my lips and that it matches my red pants. I'm glad I dressed in such a nice mammogram outfit today. I wouldn't have wanted to look like crap for this momentous occasion. I'm holding a sheet of paper that shows a sketchy drawing of my breasts. In the upper left-hand quadrant of the left breast, a black dot screams out.

Another maze of hallways awaits me. Right, left, left, right and down a long corridor to another waiting room, where I flip through People magazine. Richard Gere has married his longtime love, with whom he has been happily raising two children for the last seven years. He also really likes dogs.

Soon I am lost inside another Size Super Extra Large-Enough-for-Any-Terrified Woman gown. I am perched on the end of another examining table, feeling amazed at how quickly I've been whisked through the system. Are they giving me the VIP treatment because they know more than I do? Have they already surmised the real scoop? 

The next doc to appear at my side is grandfatherly – short, tubby and bald. Gramps won't let anything bad happen to this 52-year-old girl, will he? Especially not if I tell him that I am a mother with a 19-year-old son, right?  But of course one 19-year-old son isn't as moving as, say, three little ones all under the age of five. Shit.

I try to picture my son at the faraway school he left home to attend, a circus school. I picture him trudging through Canadian snow, on his way to another crazy day of daring pole-climbing, wacky juggling and elegant hoop diving. I try to imagine the place he and his close-knit group of circus friends have just moved into. He has described it to me, but it's hard to visualize a kooky apartment located inside in an old nunnery, complete with courtyard, chapel and, still on the walls, numerous pictures of Jesus Christ. He is beginning a whole new adventure, an exciting new phase of his life. I'd love to see this place for myself. I would love to see Montreal.

How will I tell him if the news isn't good? I don't want him to worry. But neither do I want to hide the truth, leave him out of life's precious loop. He has a right to know, doesn't he?  And he'd want to know, right? Hell no! Of course he wouldn't want to know. I should hide it from him, shield him, let him be free from this fucked up burden. I mean, if it comes to that. If if if. Sheesh. I am getting way too far ahead of myself.

As Dr. Gramps prepares the scary looking needles, I can't stop wiggling my right big toe. But the aspirations turn out to be less painful than I imagined. Once, four years ago, after a particularly bad, incredibly erotic romance and inevitable soul-crushing break-up, I raced out to get collagen injections in my unhappy brow and anorexic lips. Those injections hurt far more than these aspirations. I wonder if chemotherapy might also be less painful, less horrible, than I imagine. I wonder if my hair would grow back curlier than before. Maybe I would like that amusing transformation.

When he is done, Dr. Gramps goes to the counter where several microscope slides – silver bells and cockle shells! – are all lined up in a row.

"Are you going to tell me the results right now?" I say.     

Dr. Gramps is, to my chagrin, all business. "We won't know the final results until tomorrow after 3 p.m. This is just the preliminary finding."

"I understand. But can't you tell me what percentage of women end up with negative results?"

"At this hospital, I'd say about 85 percent."

"How many women do you see in a week?"

"In a week? I don't know. Maybe about a thousand a year."

"Okay. I know you can't give me a final answer, but can you at least make an educated guess?"

Doctor Gramps hesitates but finally speaks. "There's a very good chance it's benign."

My breath whooshes out. I didn't realize I'd been holding it in.

"What if you didn't think it was benign? Would you tell me?"

He pauses again, then looks me in the eye. "It depends on the woman. Some women don't want to hear it this soon, this way. Others would prefer to know right away. I'm telling you the truth. I've been doing this a long time, since 1979, and I'm 99 percent sure that I'm right in your case. But you should still check back tomorrow after three. In the meantime, if your breast starts to ache, take some Ibuprofen. No aspirin."

I walk back to my car in a drizzle of rain, past a row of intensely red tulips. As the inhospitable hospital vibes loosen their grip, I do the math. Eighty-five percent negative means fifteen percent positive. That's 150 women a year, which works out to roughly three freaked out women a week. It's January 23rd. So far this month, two real women have been given the news. Who are these women? What are their names? The names of their children? Their husbands? What are they doing right this minute, as I move past this real life painting of stunningly, brilliantly, strawberry-raspberry-cherry red, rose red, blood red tulips?

My punctured, bruised breast aches and burns. It's an ache that contains my dear sweet Jack, and the promise of April in Paris, and the universe that is my son's face. It's an ache that holds a sparkling glass of champagne, the pitter-patter of rain, that moment at dawn when even my stove looks soft.

I drive along Divisadero Street, my foot pressed to the gas, moving down the road with the radio on. I turn up the volume, LOUD, and sing along.

I remember Dr. Gramp's instructions to take Ibuprofen if I feel an ache. But I decide against this. I do feel an ache, but I don't want it to go away. It's the ache of fifty-two years hoping to become fifty-three and, greedily, far beyond. It's the ache of every breath I'm lucky enough to take. It's the ache of reality, mortality, humanity. I am grateful for this ache, this unwelcome, unwanted, indelible reminder. I could live with it forever.


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We have cancer survival in common, among other things. You are off to a good start, Jane.
All good wishes and hopes to you as you continue to survive cancer.
Beautifully and expressively told! Thank you for your eloquent writing and the courage to share your story!
I had two benign breast tumors removed last year and was mammogrammed and ultrasounded within an inch of my life until the biopsy results came back normal. It was terrifying. You do a great job of capturing the terror and the bargaining that ensues when a possible cancer diagnosis looms.
Thanks Lea, Mary, Elizabeth and Pauline, for your kind comments on my very first OS post!
Really beautiful writing, Jane. I'm glad to see you're putting your voice and your story out to the larger world.
The first time I read this years ago.......I cried openly........I was so afraid for you.
Today I read it and smiled with moist eyes.......I am amazed at you and hopeful.
Hello, Jane.

I'm the ?old geezer? (gender f.) around here these days. Ex-wife of an oncologist; still (so far as I know so far anyway) cancer-free; watched and walked and waited with many who've both lived with and died from cancer. Just now found this EP of yours and went to your blog also for a bit of ?"ketchup"? with you.

This is a breathtakingly exquisite piece of writing (you don't need me to tell you). Thanks so much for sharing it with all of us. I will for sure be following any/all your future posts!
I turned into a 52-year-old girl as I read this, with you leading me by the hand thru this terrifying maze of emotions and realities sensations and possibilities. You did it with such immediacy and such empathy, for you and for me, that even tho I know the outcome, I was quite content to suspend my knowledge to keep the desired illusion alive. I know the outcome and I know you are here sharing it all with us. And that is comforting. Hell, it's a blessing.
....the universe that is my son's face.

That is unequivocally one of the finest phrases I have ever read. Amongst an altogether wonderful piece.
Your writing is beautiful. "The universe that is my son's face," and so much more. ~r
I used to be one of the "Dr. Gramps". What yours did for you was very unusual. Most defer any news until all of the information is in. The primary doctor usually reserves the right to give you the verdict and I understand that. All of the conversation about what happens next, if anything, needs to follow the news, and I always hated getting calls from patients who had been given results before I had gotten them in the days before I became a pathologist.
I hope the initial impression is the final interpretation.
This was very well written. It is amazing how one's perception of what is, and is not, important clarifies in life changing moments. R
I'm sorry, I missed the part about this being a flashback until I went to rate it. Again, very well written.
Very touching and well written. I hope your news is good, and if it is not, you have what it takes to make the best of it.
Here's to hoping you're in the majority. My daughter went through leukemia and treatment for it, starting at just turned 15. She's since been cured, and had to have both hip balls and her right shoulder ball replaced from the damage to her bones during chemotherapy. Right now, she's as fine as fine can be, attitudinally speaking.

I have a fair idea of the feelings you might be going through. As I said, here's to hoping you're part of the benign majority.

Very touching and moving piece.

Have to add, One thing I hate about EP posts: they don't properly include the title. If it had, I would have noticed this is 6 years old. Obviously, however it turned out, you're here. I know the titling on an EP is not your doing (my two both didn't have the proper title in it, either, I guess that's Editorial Privilige.)

Still glad to know such a writer is still amongst us, lighting a way ahead and providing several different forms of inspiration in one peice.
I loved reading your yes-no answers. Vision clears so quickly as soon as the perspective changes. Compelling post.
I wouldn't want to be you - because I like being me - but I would like to be more like you in every way, starting with courage and writing.
So thankful to see this the second time around, as I am new to OS. Beautiful writing, honest and raw. I love the graph with the deductions about the 150 women, their names, children, etc. Thank you for reminding us to live in the moment.
You tell this so well, every detail...
I'm glad you're here to write about it!
Best wishes to you : )
beautifully written. you have writing to live for as well. many prayers this all turns out "just normal" for you, dear.
I thought this was just beautiful. It is so tense. I was so scared for you. I'm hoping that you don't have cancer. I hope you'll post more of your story soon to let us know. Lovely writing.
Oh, crap. So now I just read your bio, and learned that you did have cancer. I am going to suggest this to my friends. I think they would love to read your story. I'm glad you are 6 years out. Best wishes for your continued health.
This is beautiful writing. I look forward to reading more of your posts. -R-
A wonderful piece. I am ever so anxious to hear how circus school went for your son. Thanks Jane.
More thanks for all your kind, lovely comments. I'm a newbie here on OS, as you know. I wasn't at all familiar with it until very recently, so I had no idea what to expect. This has been a warm welcome that I greatly appreciate.
Thank you - my thoughts are with you!