Aren’t we done here? I’m one thousand one hundred ninety-eight days post lumpectomy (believe me, you’d count too), and by the looks of things I’m breezing along—religiously scheduling and attending annual mammograms and scans, daily popping my treatment pill, going to New York and whining, wining and dining with my breast friends (aka breasties), and even raising money on a cancer walk. By all accounts, I am evolving into an unremarkable cancer patient. Scratch that. Survivor. I’ve done the rose smelling, looking forward to things, looking back trying to flatten the bumpy reality of this ride, and done my damnedest to remove the cancer distraction, survive, and get back to the work of evolving.
I’m doing all the things. Taking the daily ten-year pill (Anastrazole) to block estrogen from feeding any mf-ers who dare sidle back up to the table for a meal. The twice a year insanely expensive (thank God for insurance) Prolia injections, which for half the year halt my bone sloughing activities so I can climb out of osteoporosis, which I can thank aforementioned ten-year pill for. So far my spine has graduated into osteopenia and hopefully the hips will study hard and make the grade too. And then there are those mammograms we women all loathe, but the highly uncomfortable smush we must enlist.
A friend who also didn’t sign up for this sistership remarked about the surprising fear you get when there is something new. You spiral all over again hyperventilating over endless frantic Google searches. Some fear is healthy and helpful because it enables you to react quickly if you need to (fight or flight) but being an expert anxious overthinker who can slide into panic mode on a moment’s notice is not.
Take Tuesday, for example. I’d been noticing some swelling on my left side where all the hell had broken loose in late 2019, and it seemed the asymmetry was subtly increasing. I don’t need symmetry, but I do need consistency. Once cancer enters the scene, change, the only constant, is above all not welcome. Since my annual MRI was the next day, I slipped into an exceptionally nasty rabbit hole, you know the one where you start bawling those sad guttural notes and realize you won’t have the chance to finish several important projects you finally had the guts to start, but which you’ve only just begun. You’ve drifted back to that island alone, back on the torn raft, and once again you can’t bring yourself to glance back at the shore where you’ve left everyone going about their enviable ordinary lives which, from your vantage point, look sparkly, exceptional even.
You replay all your decisions. Why didn’t I just get a double mastectomy and be rid of this troublesome attention-seeking tissue, which per my doctor wasn’t a better option since lumpectomy+radiation = mastectomy when it comes to outcomes. You lament all the things you never stepped up to do because you let self-doubt win out. You won’t get to see that beautiful blue paint you picked out for the house you’re renovating, whose renovation has been at a standstill for three months, or live to see the day the new upstairs toilet is plumbed down the hall from your bedroom so you can stop sleepwalking the 22 stairs down to the bathroom in the far corner of the house. Your empathetic cat jumps on your lap and looks into your teary eyes trying his best to calm you, stretching his 16-lb body over your chest, his sweet, adoring attempt at a hug. Bo, my lovebug. You appreciate it, but it’s still your problem and yours alone. That’s the lone journey that is cancer.
I broke down to my breast friends in a sad teary video unlike any I’ve left. Historically I’ve been the optimistic one, you could say annoyingly cheerful even, and letting this other woman run amok and star in her own video was a risk I was willing to take. Someone needed to join me on this ride back out to sea. The response came in sweet videos from these ladies who get it.
The MRI was as they always are. Expensive, a lesson in patience and stillness, and as always, I can’t understand why those socks they give you with your gown aren’t donated to people who could use a pair of socks, any pair especially these which are warm and have treads. I’ve asked and they’re thrown away. Maybe I will live long enough to spearhead a hospital sock campaign to gather them all up and distribute them to the sockless? Each time I request classical music to accompany the MRI’s knocking/phone off the hook/discotheque soundtrack, and because so far it’s worked, why switch music and tempt fate? Afterward the technician said they usually read them quickly, so I figured maybe end of day I’d hear something.
The nurse practitioner I’d called at my breast surgeon’s office returned my call and they could see me in a few hours at 1pm. I wanted them to feel firsthand this swollen asymmetry and maybe an ultrasound would show something an MRI couldn’t? I stopped to pick up coffee and ran into a friend, the same one who’s walked to radiation with me a few times and who’s mostly up to speed on things. Her simple, “How are you?” brought forth from me an abbreviated non-teary-eyed version of my plight, that I was sandwiching an errand between scan appointments. It all felt rather healthy, despite the great unknown I still faced, and thankfully the conversation moved on to lots of other areas like kids, work, house renovation.
“Your tissue is folding around your scars and pulling up causing the puffiness. See where this is?” the nurse practitioner asked. I don’t see anything unusual here.” The tears, thousands of which were still collected behind my eyes from the day before, broke free and this poor woman had unwittingly found herself in a scene. I started hugging her and it was clear she was not a big hugger, but with no choice, did it anyway. I must have hugged her two more times groveling with my, “You don’t understand how crazy this makes me” excuse for carrying on. She added that radiation is the gift that keeps on giving, resulting in dramatic tissue changes that don’t necessarily settle over time. A few more hopeful nods from her and she got the hell out of dodge, and I got dressed, but not before leaving my breasties a video.
With mask pulled off my face to reveal the full red puffiness of my tear-stained checks, I left an update to the tune of “The nurse practitioner thinks it’s okay and the ultrasound looks normal; it’s just my tissue is pulled and puffed up.” Released from prison, I moved quickly through the elevators and parking deck, reaching my husband with my get out of jail card news and then left my sister a voicemail, which was barely audible through the endless supply of tears I’m now able to produce on command. The breast friends fired back multiple videos of relief which gave me a place to land. It’s much more fun to skip out of jail if you’ve got folks cheering on your escape since they too have been incarcerated.
In her video, one of my friends mentioned how fear of recurrence for her is almost worse than the actual initial diagnosis, which I wholeheartedly agree with. We now know too much and with this new knowledge, our mind is an even far more dangerous place to be. She shared the analogy she’d read about (https://at.tumblr.com/somehedgehog/cancer-the-mountain-lion-in-your-fridge/1d3nsa19vdc0) of having had cancer being compared to having a mountain lion in your fridge. It’s there. You can hide it. You can live with it because it’s in the fringe, but sometimes you open it and are reminded that it’s always going to be there.
Home to find an email with MyChart MRI breast w/ and w/o contrast results somewhat inconclusive:
Finding 1: Area in the left breast appears benign.
Finding 2: Area in the left breast requires additional evaluation. Additional mammographic images are recommended. A possible ultrasound may be warranted following the mammographic views. Recommend diagnostic evaluation with mammogram and possible ultrasound for left breast swelling.
More calls to doctor to see what they make of MRI and ultrasound findings when seen together, and the surgeon suggested a diagnostic mammogram. When pressed, the PA admitted additional evaluation can result when the patient is voicing a new complaint, aka me, and they take it seriously. I’m glad I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut because I want that comfy place with more eyes on me. I want my file to be stamped “free to go” until the next crisis, ahem scan, happens.
On March 8, I’ll be back at the cancer center for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound, and I’ll get same-day results, which my PA expects will be fine. After that, I will begin weekly breast lymphatic massage therapy, a healthy drive up to Roswell where whomever is assigned my high maintenance breast will manually redistribute the tissue and I’ll be more comfortable. Whatever it takes, sign me up.