The sun rose as usual in Benton, Arkansas, on Wednesday, April 27, 2005. The birds sang, the dogs barked, all over the world people went about their business like any other day.
Todd had accepted his new position in Pennsylvania and given his three week notice just days before. We were preoccupied with list upon list of what needed to be done around the house before it would be ready to show. It was our main topic of conversation.
I was a little miffed this particular morning because I had to stop my cleaning/ purging/spiffing-up momentum for a mammogram and a doctor’s appointment. Not that getting a mammogram was any big deal. I’d had lumps before and had been squished twice already. They were always the same thing – benign, fibrocystic lumps.
This lump was a little different, though. The small mass was just left of the nipple of my left breast and was pulling the areola in on that side. The effect was what I like to call “Marty Feldman Syndrome” or MFS. You know, one eye focused straight ahead while the other strayed off in an entirely different direction. Still, I only figured this had more to do with where the lump was and less to do with what it was.
What had me concerned was the fact my gynecologist was sending me to a “breast specialist” after the mammogram. He’d never done that before. In fact he’d never really been worried before, but this time he was obviously disturbed by the MFS. So I requested prayers from some friends and asked Todd to go with me.
The mammogram went as usual. I let the very nice technician manhandle my chest and tug on me just so there would be enough to cram in the cold contraption. I tried hard not to laugh when she said the ridiculous words, “Hold your breath and don’t move.” Really. Where am I going to go?
After the usual mammogram was the usual ultrasound. After the usual ultrasound was the usual quick consultation with the radiologist. This time, however, he said there was a bit of a chance of malignancy. About 20% from what he could see from the films. He was certain the specialist would want to schedule a needle biopsy. Bah! That meant there was an 80% chance of it being benign.
Films in hand, we headed to the breast specialist, more commonly referred to as the surgical oncologist. But I preferred the former title. Not quite as scary.
Todd and I sat in the cold, sterile room – he in the chair and me on the exam table in my lovely gown, feet dangling like a child – totally ignoring the huge elephant while we prioritized our ever-growing To Do list. The doctor came in with the films, clipped them onto the view box and introduced herself. She said the mass looked suspicious and a needle biopsy would be in order.
At this point I was more exasperated than anything. All I could think of was what a terrible inconvenience this was. I knew it couldn’t be cancer because I had no doubt God wanted us in Pennsylvania. He had been very persistent in this regard. And if He wanted us to move he wouldn’t give me cancer. Right?
“Here’s the deal,” I said. I told her about Todd’s impending move in just a few weeks and how the kids and I would be following as soon as the house was sold. If she gave the lump a 20% chance of malignancy as the radiologist did then I’d do the needle biopsy because I knew it would prove benign. So after explaining our situation I asked what her opinion was.
It was in that moment I realized she had been easing us into the reality of what we were dealing with. Her demeanor changed from professional courtesy to one of blunt frankness. “I’ve seen thousands of films and judging from this starburst pattern radiating away from the tumor, I would give this a 95% probability of malignancy.”
I’m not sure if I made a sound, but I felt as though I’d been hit in the stomach, the wind completely knocked out of me. Deep down I’d known this was different than the lumps I’d had before, but the shock was a physical blow. I was almost afraid to look at Todd and when I did I knew he’d been slammed by the same force. The doctor handed me a box of Kleenex and left us to gather our thoughts.
Not speaking, we clung to each other and wept. I was only 39. Our children were 10 and 13. We were supposed to be moving. Suddenly nothing made sense.
When she came back into the room I told her I didn’t want to waste time with a needle biopsy. That would just delay everything another week at least and time was of the essence here. I wanted to get this mess taken care of so I could get on with my life.
She agreed a needle biopsy would be nearly useless and before we left I was scheduled for a surgical biopsy and potential mastectomy the following week. Todd and I walked to the car in a mute daze, still reeling from the news. He finally broke the silence when he said he was going to try to get his Little Rock job back. I persuaded him not to do anything yet. At least not until we had stopped spinning and could think rationally.
As we drove home I looked at him and said, “There is a silver lining to this very dark cloud.” He looked at me, clearly unconvinced. “I’m serious. I can think of several benefits. First of all, the chemo will be a harsh, yet effective weight loss program and I won’t have to shave anymore. And I’ll have all the time in the world to read all those books in the office.”
He still didn’t seem to be on board until I hit him with the clincher. “And,” I said, going in for the kill, “insurance will actually pay for me to get a set of new, improved, perky boobs!” Yeah. That got his attention.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur, though it seemed to drag out forever. Under normal circumstances my first phone call would have been to my mother. She and my dad, however, were on vacation in California with no way for me to get a hold of them. So instead I called my hairdresser and went in for a hair cut. Can you say “denial”? Or maybe it was just shock.
My parents were scheduled to call us two days later and I was struggling with what to tell them. I was afraid they would cut their vacation short just to come home and be there when I had the surgery. I really didn’t want them to do that. Instead my father happened to call this particular day about another matter. Dad’s not much of a talker and I was thankful it was him because I was pretty sure the subject of my mammogram wouldn’t come up. We were just about to hang up when I heard my mom in the background saying, “Ask her how her appointment went.” *sigh* I just said, “Not good. I’m having surgery on Tuesday,” and that was that.
Later when my mom called and mentioned they should change their tickets and come home I was able to convince her not to. I knew I was going to need them a whole lot more when I started treatment. Besides, Todd’s parents were in town to help and my sister, Terri, was coming to help, too.
We had already told the kids I had a lump and the doctor wanted me to have a mammogram to make sure it wasn’t something bad. Of course I had to explain what that was, to which Taylor asked, “Will they pop back into place when it’s over?” That’s what happens when you encourage your children to ask questions. They do.
So that afternoon we told them the breast doctor didn’t like what she saw and I would be having surgery the following week. I don’t think we actually said the word “cancer” in this particular conversation. We figured the fact I was going to have surgery was enough for them to deal with. Besides, there was still that 5% chance it was benign.
There were several people who knew I was going in for a mammogram and I sent them a global email with the results of the day’s events. In the message I said we probably wouldn’t be answering the phone that day. By that night, however, I had spoken to the majority of them. What was funny – and truly made us laugh – was that I was the one comforting friends and family.
After the phone calls stopped and the kids had gone to bed, we laid in our own bed holding hands and talking. Despite the events of the day there was a feeling of peace. There were still so many unknowns, but, as I’ve said many times before, we knew God was in control. And that knowledge is the best source of comfort there is.