breast cancer, Covid-19, Health, hope, uncertainty

Eighteen days to Brenda

I went in August 24 for a diagnostic mammogram. My radiologist suggested I go ahead and get one instead of waiting until October as my gynecologist planned. The mammogram at this hospital presented stark differences. The robes you change into aren’t a screaming, Pepto-Bismol pink, but a white soft cottony waffle weave accented with subtle thin pink piping. They’re stacked neatly waiting on you in a warming box. Divine. Here I found few deep Southern accents, but more Brooklyn, and simple pastel beach scenes or botanical wall art; you’re not coddled as much either, which surprisingly I liked. Besides, the last place brought bad news, and I am so over bad news, so I  needed a new place.

When you’ve had what I’ve had (yes, I now get to check the “history of breast cancer” box), for future mammograms, instead of going home to wait on your letter in the mail, your results are on-the-spot. It was a long wait, and after looking each other up and down for a few minutes, a woman across from me and I eventually broke our masked silence with a “What are you in for?” dialogue. Me: “I’m Stage II, 100% ER positive, post lumpectomy, chemo and radiation.” You? “I’m triple negative.” Even though no one in our predicament can determine exactly how we ended up here, we each tried our best to reveal what might have contributed, with a Forgive me for I have sinned confessional to each other. She: “I used to eat ice cream every single night.” Me: “I’ve stopped red meat and now only occasionally enjoy a glass of wine.” 

A nurse calls her, and she gets up to go hear her results. Next a man, I presume the radiologist, got me for mine. Immediately I assumed since I got the doctor, the news seemed more complicated, and complicated could spell trouble. We went to a room that was far too nice for doling out good results. He made small talk before he dove in, admitting if he didn’t know better, that I’d had a lumpectomy, my scans might have raised a red flag. Lots of them as it’s a mess in there. Not his words exactly, but with all the pins, scar tissue and density obscuring things, he seemed exhausted from wading through the scans, as if he’d just returned from war. 

I knew my left breast was a mess when back in 2000 I began breast feeding my first baby. I knew there was milk in there but, damn, quite the struggle to get it out! Always a poor producer and the plumbing seemed faulty every time I pumped or breast fed my babies. But you have to get it out of there or you’ve got a painful situation on your hands! After his initial comments about such chaotic density, the radiologist said everything looks fine. Gosh, did we really need to sit in that private room for all this? I got up and left, happy to dodge this scare. The woman who’d led me to the dressing room asked a man at the checkout desk to schedule an MRI. I asked why an MRI, since my mammogram was fine, and she mumbled something about high risk. Wait, me? I ignored my confusion and instead requested the first available appointment and to get on the cancellation list. I snagged the only one they had, four days later at 6:45am. 

I had an MRI before back when all this breast drama started up in November of 2019, but experiencing how particularly thorough this new place was gave me a reassuring level of comfort, that this hospital is sparing no detail, turning over every stone so I’ll continue to turn up “normal.” Friday came and I was up at 5 to leave by 6. It was quiet in the lobby except for a few patients waiting for their own scans. Wonder what they’re in for? Since MRIs are loud, you get headphones and your choice of music. I went for my old standby, classical. No sooner did they slide the headphones on than Pachelbel’s Canon in D began. Always floods me back to my twilight wedding, walking down that beautiful outdoor aisle passing smiling friends and luminaries along my way. The technicians worked efficiently, and I was heading home in 45 minutes. 

Busy in my kitchen later that afternoon, I got a call from my radiation oncologist. She asked, had the radiologist already called me? Uh oh, I’ve heard this kind of call before. Cut to the chase please, I thought impatiently. “Ms. Greco, the radiologist saw some areas of concern on your MRI and wants to schedule a biopsy.” First off, my brain is screaming, area(s) PLURAL? You have got to be &#$@-ing kidding me?! And then it moves on to the OF CONCERN part, concerning it its own right. I had noticed a little pea sized nodule during my daily breast massage but assumed it was just knots left behind from surgery and radiation. After radiation ended in April, the radiologist had suggested I daily massage the tissue to keep it from forming too much scar tissue, which I’ve done.

Alas, this was no dream and I was told they’d be calling soon to schedule my return for another MRI + biopsy + mammogram. Great way to start the long weekend. Ugh. I got scheduled for that following Friday, a 7am appointment, with arrival at 6:30. Another early morning, but nothing like getting it out of the way. 

Thankfully between our house renovation and chats and visits with my boys and my own endless internet research on breast nodules four months post radiation, fat necrosis, and any other topic which resembled my situation, the week ticked along fairly quickly. 

Up early again for the MRI and arrived to find another handful of people socially distanced in the waiting room. I got registered, my hospital bracelet, etc. and was escorted to the dressing room. As with the previous MRI, I had an IV inserted in my arm so they could inject a contrast dye, which improves image quality. I got my choice of music again and this time I thought, let’s change it up. I asked for something calming but not classical, and the nurse suggested nature sounds, so nature sounds it was.

My nature music started with water sounds and soon my brain went to our recent plumbing situation with camellia roots wrapped around our pipes and toilet and adjacent tub filling with water. After the plumbing fiasco (which we resolved) I moved on to stiller waters and imagined my sister and me canoeing on Lake Lanier, like we did as teenagers. Our oars cut the glassy water as we maneuvered into coves, the mature adventurers we were, now out of view from our parents we’d left behind on our sailboat docked in its slip. As I lay masked on my stomach, the doctors slid me in and out of this machine, instructing me over and over to stay completely still. I’m guessing they felt they must repeat the instruction given how much I talked at the outset, thinking surely this motor mouth wouldn’t put a lid on it and stop moving in order for them to get their work done. But as the kind nurse told me afterwards, I was a real trooper. It must have been nearly an hour that I was on that table and somehow, I didn’t move at all.

After my water music segued into crickets and other summer night insects, I noticed a little half moon shaped light below near the floor or maybe on the table I was on. It looked like the Morton salt girl’s umbrella, complete with curved J shape below for its handle. As I was wheeled in and out of this machine never knowing when they’d move it out or back in, I was reminded of one of my favorite Six Flags rides, Mo Mo the monster, when the guy working the ride spun me around extra times since I was the birthday girl. I decided getting zoomed in and out of this machine was instead a fun ride, plus I had the benefit of summer bugs and the Morton salt girl for company.

Once the biopsy began, the nice nurse – the one who gave me the warm robe and told me I was a trooper — began holding my hand. I remember when a nurse at an earlier biopsy last year began lovingly stroking my calves. This nurse held on to my hands and I realized how good that felt, especially these days when we don’t get to hug anyone except those we live with. I needed that touch so badly and while my left hand was holding on to the emergency ball they give you to squeeze in case you need them to stop, I found a few fingers on my left hand joining her hand with my right to communicate an extra, this is so nice and I feel loved, message. Because I had been numbed, I didn’t feel them jostling and twisting to get this suspicious mass during this core needle biopsy, yet I could tell it wasn’t simply a pulling on a syringe but a turning motion as if wrangling a cork out with a corkscrew. Weeee! I got wheeled back in again and more loud MRI knocking noises harmonized with the summer bug sounds, and I was back out. A final jostling to insert a pin, another marker to light the way for the next person doing my scan, and in and out several more times, and it was done.

Next on the menu was a mammogram. Freshly bandaged, I was promised this mammogram was of the gentle variety. Having not had one since my initial diagnosis in November (and since subsequent surgery and radiation), I didn’t realize how much it was going to hurt since the former surgical site was terribly tender. Picture your ear lobe after you pierce it, forever left with a knot. My knot hurt getting flattened onto the machine, especially fresh from the biopsy. As I was pressed into a pancake again, the blood started coming, smearing the glass. My wandering mind went to a hilarious sketch years ago with Dan Aykroyd channeling Julia Child  boning a chicken, blood spurting up and down onto the bird. Instead of high-pitched Julia gasps, this technician was calm and simply wiped it away. But my poor breast, how much more was it going to endure? A few more images from a few more angles and I was left to wait while she met with the doctor down the hall. She returned with news he was pleased with the images, and off I went to check out.

The nice nurse who’d held my hand handed me off to a gentleman at the exit desk, telling him I’d had a biopsy. He couldn’t hear her, so he whispered, as if trying to simply mouthe it, “She had a b i o p s y ?” lest the folks in the waiting area learn my situation. I felt this strange cloud of shame and sadness waft over me. He told me in a quiet sympathetic voice to enjoy the holiday weekend. I uttered a “You, too,” and got the hell out of there. Once home I had to take it easy which for most people means lie in bed and rest. I had to realize that paperwork, dishes, laundry and dog walks could wait and that I could actually lie in bed and rest, which is exactly what I did, icing the area 15 minutes every hour on the hour until bedtime. The biopsy site stung so that kept me still and thankfully my 13-year-old dog was content to stay put on the kitchen floor, slinking in and out of sleep.

The doctors told me I’d hear results by Tuesday or Wednesday, and it was an interminable five days. Wednesday came and went and nothing. I had decided it’s ludicrous that I would be the one with that unfortunate case of a recurrence a mere four months post radiation. No matter the new diet, ridiculously slight alcohol intake, stepped up exercise, mine was an aggressive little bugger that could withstand chemo and radiation and emerge with a renewed, Please ma’am may I have another? annoying verve. My sister tried to convince me I’m not special that way. I felt a bit like a criminal, like I was being punished yet couldn’t understand my crime. I figured I had a 50/50 chance and felt like over the weekend they’d rustle up a public defender – a la My Cousin Vinny – and the next week hopefully I’d have some semblance of a case ready.

Now it’s today, Thursday, and I couldn’t stand the silent house any longer, so I left for the hardware store, where I tinker from time to time, just like my dad used to. I love it there because it’s small, there’s plenty of interesting merchandise, and people are ready to help you find what you need, answer any questions you might have (except the What do you think will come of my biopsy? variety). Found some flowers on clearance to replace my tired zinnias and was loading them in the car when the phone rang. An unknown exchange, certainly not my doctor’s office, but I answered it anyway. On the other end of the phone was a smiling Brenda’s voice, which exclaimed: “Hi Mrs. Greco, I have good news for you, as I know you’ve been waiting. We got your results in and it’s only scar tissue. So we won’t need to see you for six months.” I literally said, “God Bless You” and thanked her profusely. If you can hug through the phone, then that is what I did. It was heartfelt and I’m certain Brenda felt it. I love that Brenda. 

These were the perfect segue into fall AND they’re yellow. (win win)
Decision 2020, hope, Patriotism, White House

Show, Don’t Tell

Several years ago while working with a PR firm, I wrote an article for a client’s E-newsletter. My boss wasn’t as in love with it as I hoped he’d be, and advised reworking it slightly, employing the Show Don’t Tell writing tenet. Since then I can’t say my writing has consistently championed this rule, but I have given it more thought and realize it applies to our relationships, motivations, leadership, too  – basically, everything.

“We are at a crossroads of broadening or narrowing what we can be.”

Jon Meacham, American writer and presidential biographer.

Meacham’s recent research and writing has focused on one of our nation’s fallen leaders in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, where he examines the choices of light vs. darkness before us. He talks of Lewis’ sacrifices to his own body and dignity, his march for voting rights which paved the way for so many. Lewis showed us what moral, racial and national responsibility looks like. In contrast, Meacham says Trump thinks of us not as a country but as an audience. He tells us what we should be focusing on, all he’s done, is doing and will do for the American people.

There are those precious times you come away from time spent with a group with that feeling that you’re aligned with kindred souls and it feels like home. I felt that way a few years ago at a writer’s workshop, surrounded by people who, like me, could obsess all day over which adjective would best paint the picture in their minds and onto their easels, laptops in this case. It was easy to respect those in this group who bravely revealed their vulnerability, sharing their stories, however early in their creation, and cultivate an affinity for the lack of affectation, and a connection with everyday people you identify with, root for and want to succeed.

The Democratic National Convention gave me a similar feeling as I witnessed straightforward speakers each casting a different light on these times, sharing their own experiences, and delivering insightful reactions on the Democratic nominee. I felt proud and excited as I tuned in every night, hopeful about the possibilities for change, a chance to restore decency, dignity and reinstall intellect and fairness to our collective futures. And to be fair, I also watched the Republican National Convention, though struggled to savor it all in the same way. It felt more like droning in the background and I couldn’t latch on to the messages from these presenters — sometimes screaming, sometimes preaching, always scripted — as they read the teleprompters and consistently piled on praise for this man who continues to hold so many and so much hostage.

They talked of Keeping America America, if that makes any sense (it doesn’t). Vice President Pence even vowed to “Keep American Great Again. Again.” Please, not another round. They spoke in words similarly loyal to their Law and Order president, a self-assigned wartime hero. (I don’t believe wartime heroes typically assign themselves this designation?) As with the DNC, the RNC produced loads of people at the lectern, including Kayleigh McEnany, the current press secretary (his fourth filling the role three and a half years in). McEnany told of breast cancer in her family and with welled up eyes, revealed she was forever beholden to “her” president because thanks to him she could get a preventive mastectomy — and not only that, he even called to check on her after surgery, better explained by the fact she’s a close friend of his daughter, Ivanka’s. Let’s get this straight: She wouldn’t qualify for this same surgery were Joe Biden president? I believe fact checking would reveal another fabrication designed to tug at your heartstrings, planting the seed that the other side wouldn’t help you, and would instead leave you to suffer, sick and alone, which simply is not true. I’ve recently undergone my own necessary breast conserving surgery (lumpectomy), so I do not consider these matters lightly.

As the nights wore on, between presenters an ominous “historic” music (think Gunsmoke theme song) seeped into the show, and B-roll panned to sacrosanct monuments of yesteryear, each sprung from hallowed ground, and on to the home of that resolute desk, the White House, glowing and sexy and cloaked (and nearly choked) in American flags, dramatically lit up at night. On script, our president reminded us of our great American patriots, that “we” built great ships, raised up the skyscrapers. And let’s not forget Annie Oakley and Davie Crockett. I do wonder just as our current Postmaster General admits he doesn’t know how much it costs to mail a postcard, does Donald Trump even understand his own notion of patriotism? Interesting to see how each party looks at this concept. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/03/how-views-patriotism-vary-by-party/

One of several African-American presenters, former NFL player Jack Brewer among other things petitioned for bringing back the nuclear family. Did it actually leave, or did we instead simply open the doors to other types of families that don’t resemble the Cleaver household? The thing is you don’t need to feel scared if today’s families don’t look like they used to; you can instead choose how your family looks. Similarly, if Black Lives do in fact matter, it doesn’t mean other lives don’t; the movement was never created in that spirit, so who, why and when did they irresponsibly start suggesting it? If you want your family to mimic a 1950s mentality, the man as the breadwinner, his wife in an apron in the kitchen and children in their Sunday best week after week, you can do that. This is America. If someone else wants to live with their lesbian or gay lover and adopt a black or brown child, they can do that. Still, we all want and deserve the same things, right? 

During RNC week I heard many speakers remind us how Donald J. Trump is fighting for this and fighting for that. And by the way, what is this new emphasis on the “J.” ? I can’t help but recall Tiny Fey’s hilarious sketch and if, like me, you need a serving of humor in these troubled times, please do grab a fork and dive in. Maybe the emphasis on the “J” is so we don’t confuse the Donald with his namesake, Donald, Jr., which by extension could remind us of his shrieking, excessively lip-lined girlfriend. Donald J. has spent much of his time in office angrily Tweeting, defensive, curt, ready for a fight. We keep hearing he is Fighting for America. Must it be a fight, though, and is there not a way we can just get along? 

Incensed about the fighting and looting of late, he’s promising us if he gets four more years our world won’t look like this, yet he says the violence will continue if Biden wins. The thing is, and as Biden has already underscored, this guy is President now and yet still, there’s fighting and looting happening, all on his watch. Can you assign blame for today’s hostility to a presidential candidate before he is elected? Indeed you can in Trump’s world until it seeps under every MAGA cap and into those fine supporters’ heads, including even one recent underage gun-toting crusader and rally attendee, Kyle Rittenhouse. In addition, even after ten days in, we still haven’t heard Trump mention Jacob Blake’s name. 

Between the Gunsmoke theme song alternating with an awards show style musical score, the RNC brought folks from the mountains to the prairies over red carpeted paths to the lectern, their performances resembling a nostalgic cross between a soap opera, Sunday school and a binge watching week of Little House on the Prairie and Andy Griffith. Eventually, though, you come up for air, and when you do, you realize after those simpler times, you know, when America was America, that we snuck in a few things: we now are afforded the benefits of modern medicine, science, the Internet, and hard-fought freedoms for so many different kinds of people, black, brown, gay, straight and everyone in between. 

Next came the fireworks. I’ve seen loads in my 57 years, the best probably during a visit to Disney World a decade ago. They went on forever and as I looked up into the night sky there was magic and hope and what felt like no expense sparred which of course there wasn’t. And then it was over and by the time we got to our hotel, the magic had faded.

In lieu of the convention tapering down to a folksy scene – picture an upright piano playing Jesus Loves Me as the Sunday School program ends with waxy Solo cups and Nilla Wafers crumbs underfoot – instead we witnessed an operatic Ave Maria serenading this extended first family. But we did get to watch, so maybe he was serenading us, too? 

At RNC, they opened the curtain for us to get a glimpse, for us to watch them in their house at their party. Toward the end of the last night, POTUS, smirk on his face, turned his head to look at the White House behind him, and remarked, “The fact is, I’m here,” he said, a broad smile across his face. “What’s the name of that building?” he asked as the crowd cheered. Turning back to the crowd, he was even more blunt: “But I’ll say it differently. The fact is we’re here, and they’re not.” It’s shameful to taunt this partisan prop, The People’s House, holding what’s clearly a partisan event on government property. 

That week of the RNC felt like watching a first-class airline cabin from a close distance, watching it yet not even getting the benefit of walking through it. Surely you know the feeling: You get on a plane and pass First-Class where everyone is head down, nose in a book or pecking away on laptops, Wall Street journals in their lap, half downed cocktail by their side. They briefly greet you looking up, uninterested yet mildly curious, surprised even, that you’d have the gall to crash their private flight which was about to begin before the throngs of you harried and hurried passengers climbed on board. Like you’re late for the private screening of the film, an event that somehow leaked down to the likes of you, and they’re certainly not going to catch you up on the plot. An exhausted mule with saddle bags, you barely fit in the aisle, jacket in a wad under your sweaty armpit. Their pressed jackets were hung up hours ago in a roomy compartment up front. You’re both late to the party but you don’t get to go to the party. You’re holding them up.

I found it interesting but not exactly surprising that so many of these speakers are from the South, the Bible Belt where God is good, God is great and God is feared, and from the American plains, where those amber waves of grain grow. Cue more Gunsmoke music, and we see a young Caucasian crew-cut boy running through a cornfield in his backyard flying the model airplane his daddy helped him make. Ahhh, remember those days? I’m all for working with dad on a project, but what about all those other boys, the ones whose stomachs are grumbling from hunger, who have no Aunt Bea making pies for them in the kitchen, or who’ve got marks on their legs from their own Pa’s beating them, and who can only dream of holding a model airplane in their own hands much less having access to a wide open space in which to fly it? Where in this American Dream do they fit in exactly? Couldn’t this crew cut boy at least be depicted as sharing the fun with a black friend? Again, help me understand, am I missing something? Can’t we all be friends?

Much talk went to this land, our liberties and those who defend it. We were told that the foundation of freedom is faith. What about those who don’t believe in God? Or Jesus? Then what? Are they lesser? Surely, we can all agree with the promise that a society should be built upon love of people and service to others? The RNC message is, “Where Joe Biden sees American darkness, we see American greatness.” Joe may have pointed out some dark times still in our midst –- and to be sure there are many extraordinary challenges with which we must reckon and I prefer a leader to be honest about our nation’s challenges — but is it a fair statement to suggest he also can’t see the greatness? I find it a theatrical stretch at best.

By the end, it all felt like watching a party we’re not invited to. This “genteel” suits and high heels crowd, rallying around their leader, acknowledging that he means what he says and says what he means, even though (hee hee) he says whatever is on his mind. Am I the only one who doesn’t find this charming? What about those “African nation shithole countries” of which he previously spoke, and his proud admission of how “When you’re a star, they (women) let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.” Are these the family values, that nuclear family purity we’re attempting to resurrect? I don’t think it’s working.

Watching them all, a chorus line bedazzled by the fireworks display above their hallowed grounds, their White House, it felt like the circle was closed off to just these Trumpians, and instead we at home were given limited clearance to merely watch their event. In contrast, watching Joe Biden’s family at the end of the DNC, the circle felt open and I felt invited inside, like I was one of them, and the circle would stay open for me always.

I grew up in the South. I went to church every Sunday. And then I left for college where it was time to look around and see what else existed. I met so many different types of people and despite our varying backgrounds, I found we all wanted the same things. Can’t we all have a piece of the pie? Is it not as delicious if we are all sharing it? I say cut it in slimmer slices and pass the plates. Surely, that’ll show us far more than telling us that we will all get a taste.