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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Irrational Reality of the Post Cancer Mind

On September 18th I had a mammogram. As a woman over the age of 40, I go in every year for the required boob-smashing. I have no history of breast cancer on either side of my family. ZERO history. But, as the parent of a child lost to cancer, the fear is there.

It's not just fear of breast cancer. It's fear of cancer. Period.

So, I had the mammogram. A few years ago I asked the woman doing my exam how long it would take for me to be notified if there was something there. She had just finished my scans and told me I could go get dressed. I'll never forget her - she was a black woman, probably about my age, with a friendly smile. She looked at me and said, "Honey, if I saw something there, I wouldn't be letting you walk out the door right now."

As in all previous years, that scan came back clear. Since then, I've always trusted that, if I'm allowed to get dressed and leave, the girls are good to go.

Last Tuesday - a full eleven days after my mammogram - I got a call from the mammo tech saying I needed to come in for more scans. Unfortunately, I missed the call because I was at work, so I got the message on voicemail after the clinic had closed. Immediately I was shaking. Instant tears. It was just a voicemail, and already I knew I was dying. I had to go to a baseball game that night and put on a happy face, because I didn't want to say anything to Mackenzie yet. How do I tell my child - the only child I have left, because cancer already stole her brother, her best friend, from her seven years ago - that I will never get to see her children...that I won't get to help her shop for a wedding dress...that I'm so sorry I won't live to be old like I thought I would.

The next morning, I called the radiology clinic as soon as it opened. I spoke with the tech who took my scans. She explained that there was "something" on one side that didn't appear in last year's scans (which she also took). I tried keeping my voice level, even as my insides felt like they had turned to jello. I asked when I could come back for more scans. She responded with, "I can get you in on October 13th."

It was September 30th. She wanted me to wait 13 DAYS? In my head, my already raging breast cancer was guaranteed to metastasize in those 13 days, becoming tumors in my lungs, my brain, and anywhere else sticky in my insides that it could latch onto.

I said, "Okay," resigned to my fate, hung up and called my husband. That is when the tears started. True to form, he blew a gasket. "What do you mean they can't get you in until the %&@#ing 13th? Did she say what it is that they saw? Can you call her back?"

After a mostly-failed attempt to pull myself together, I called her back. I asked if there was anything sooner than the 13th. I told her all of the questions that Mike had asked. And then I said the words that (I think) pushed the right button with her.

"I'm sorry. It's just that...we lost our 12-year-old son to cancer seven years ago. Cancer is something that we all have a very real fear of."

I was crying by the time I finished that simple sentence. She put me on hold, came back a few minutes later and offered to fit me in on October 6th. Technically the first appointment of the day was at 9:00 am, but she said if I came in at 8:00, she'd take my scans and then try to get a radiologist to read them as soon as she could. She warned that I might have to wait a while though. I was okay with that.

For six days, I imagined the worst. I didn't want to die. I was too young...I wanted to be there for Mackenzie as she falls in love, gets married, has children of her own. My husband was too young to lose me, which...let's be honest here...means that he's young enough to go out and  find another woman to love and spend his twilight years with, and that does not work for me. That bitch can find her own man, thankyouverymuch. Every older woman I saw, I thought to myself, "Why does she get to live to be old and I don't?" The morbid thoughts were endless.

If you think that I am the only one with this gruesome, pessimistic nature, think again. When I finally did tell Mackenzie that I had to go for more scans, she threw her arms around me and said, "If your hair falls out, I will shave my head too!" She didn't cry or freak out, but she automatically went straight to cancer, just as I had.

This morning, my husband and I got up and headed out to the hospital for the scans that I just knew would begin another journey of surgery and chemo for our family to deal with. Enough days had passed that I was thinking (slightly) more logically, hoping that my cancer was being caught early and at worst, I'd lose a boob (at best, I was hoping for a whole new rack).

I think I had a total of 8 new scans done, although it felt like 30. The tech commented that she was sorry she had to be rough, but that she "wanted to get as much tissue in the scan as possible." The fact that I don't have one side dragging the ground right now is a testament to the elasticity of skin. At one point as she was pulling and smashing my poor girl, taking the exact same scan for the third time, she said, "I want to make sure I get 'it' in the scan."

There it is...breast cancer. This mysterious "it" has to be a lump of some kind, right? They'd probably do an ultrasound after this, just to be sure, but then they'd come in and tell me. We'd start discussing biopsy, or maybe they'd just go right to a full radical mastectomy. Then on to oncology, maybe radiation. I wondered if I'd have to get the little dot tattoos on my chest so that the radiation would get targeted to exactly the right place.

Finally, after all the scans were complete, the radiologist came in. I asked if my husband could please come in also. Mike came and stood next to me, ready to catch me when the hammer fell. I braced myself for the worst.

"It's a lymph node."

I'm pretty sure Mike and I both just stared at him. All of the morbid thoughts became a mist that, temporarily, fogged my brain. I can't remember (even though it was just this morning) everything else that was said. I do remember him saying that I don't have to have another mammogram until my annual exam next year and I must have still been looking doubtful (or just stupid, which is highly possible). He then said, "I would say the same thing if I saw this in my wife, my sister, or my mother. It's just a lymph node."

As Mike and I walked out of the clinic, each of us had our phones out and were texting the folks that we'd had waiting in the wings to be there for us, just as they had been when Keeghan was diagnosed 9 years ago. Because that is how it is when you already bear the scars of cancer. At the slightest hint that cancer might be rearing its hideous head in your life again, you start to circle the wagons. You prepare for the worst, because the worst has already happened once. Is it irrational? Of course. But until you have proof that there is no cancer...there is.