Sunday, October 2, 2011

Joining a fight that isn't (at least now) too personal

While doing my usual Saturday grocery run yesterday, I picked up two Dannon Oikos yogurts. For one thing, I've developed a recent love for Greek-style yogurt. Another draw was the coupon I had. The third, and most compelling for me, was the label that said that Dannon will donate at least ten cents for every time someone goes to, and enters the code under the foil lid.

So, I did, and I feel a little sense of happiness to have contributed to the cause. Each donation of any kind, each 5/10K walk, each...anything...brings us closer to research leading to more effective diagnoses, treatments, and cures.

As far as "The Big C" bothering me, I've been very lucky -- so far. There are the my good genes and family history negative for breast cancer (except for the small tumor my maternal grandma had at 92, which got shrunk to virtually nothing by Tamoxifen by the time she died at 94). I do everything right, I think. Okay, so I'll admit to being irrationally squeamish about the recommended self-exams (What if I find a lump? How will I stand the fear?). But I DO go for the annual boob-squashing ritual, followed by a day or two of breath-holding...but that puts me in the clear, right?

In the fall of 2001, I got a thump on the head, of sorts. At that time, I was working as a case manager at Senior Care Network, a department of Huntington Hospital. It was about 2:30 PM on a Friday, and my office mate and I were doing the usual before-weekend paper shuffling and chatting casually.

My phone rang. A staffer from my doctor's office crisply said that my recent mammogram had been just read, and "they saw something." Would I mind coming in on Monday morning for a follow-up, and...have a nice weekend.

Right. Now that got my attention.

When my RN coworker noticed that I had been sitting for too long in a catatonic-like state, too quiet, she came over and gave me a hug. All of a sudden, words and images welled up and came flooding out, including every cancer story I had ever read or heard in my life. All kinds of "what if" scenarios bombarded me. What if it is cancer? What if they find that it's already spread too far? What if I got too sick to work, to finish my doctoral program, to see Eric grow up and get married....I wanted to live, to maybe find love again, to be a grandma....

Fear. Freaking-out Two of the other f-words. I was off and running with them.

I went home and stuttered out the news to my retired-nurse mom, who actually took it very well. Thankfully, she's always been a hard-core pragmatist, and had a wealth of professional reassurances to share, making my inevitable preoccupation over the weekend slightly easier.

Monday's follow-up appointment transpired, leading to some lab work, two more "inconclusive" mammograms, and a statement that "we'll let you know what else we're going to have done." I went about my work and home lives in a detached state, punctuated by periods of frustrated rages. "(Expletives deleted here), why can't they really tell me something? Am I sick, or am I OK?"

Finally, partly because she was really concerned about my emotional state, and also to quell the storm in our office, my coworker suggested I go to Huntington Hospital's Hill Breast Center. There, I ended up having a state-of-the-art breast ultrasound. They could see my "parts" in exquisite 3-D detail. Even in the throes of my worries, I was fascinated by the technology....and reassured at the end by it.

The doctor came in afterwords, took my hands in his, and said, "You're going to be fine. You just got breasts with lots of fibrous tissue."

I laughed and cried at the same time, relieved as I had never been before. "Fine" and "fibrous" are "f-words" I can live with very nicely, thank you very much. Call me a wimp if you want to, but this is the closest I want to come to having breast cancer. And I wish that for (yes, they can get breast cancer!) and women.

Having written this almost makes me feel sheepish. When I think of the women I know who weren't nearly as lucky as me (yes, I know some Stage 4 survivors, and also some who have passed away), I feel somewhat self-indulgent recalling my scare ten years ago.'s burned in my brain, and I won't look at the issue of breast cancer the same way again.

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