Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My left boob

Photo courtesy of Chris Patako/Flickr

Yesterday, I went to the OBGYN for a long-overdue checkup. While he's poking and prodding me, Dr. Jackson asks about the kids, so I tell him about Lily's busy 4-year-old imagination. I ask about his side gig as a wedding photographer. He's been traveling to San Francisco a lot recently to take pictures for friends. Then he talks about this viewing he had to go to that night. This acquaintance had asked him to take photos of her just after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She wanted some nice pictures while she still had hair. They used one of them for the obit. 

He's examining my left breast as we talk about brain development in children when he frowns. 

 "You have what feels like a cyst here -- ever notice it?" he asks

I shrug and say no. What he says doesn't really register. 

I'm lying there in my "Terms of Endearment" moment and all I can think is, figures it's the left one. That one's always been temperamental. Back in high school, I nicknamed it Bertha. It's always overshadowed the right one like a greedy twin. The cantaloupe next to the clementine, for those who prefer fruit analogies. The wedding cake, next to the pancake, for those who prefer pastry. 

My sisters have long told me I exaggerated the size differential between the two, but even they were impressed after I started nursing Lily. Bertha was its own planet. The right one just a moon. Bertha's lumpy and prone to mastitis. At one point, during one of the most disturbing side affects of pregnancy I experienced (and example of the disgusting but fascinating nature of the human body) I developed a leaky bump under my left armpit. Dr. Jackson informed me it was probably just a breast tissue. Nothing to be worried about since there are milk lines that run into your armpits. 

But I knew the real culprit. It was Bertha, trying to hog up even more space on my body.

Dr. Jackson finishes his examination. I asked him about the possibility of switching birth control to something that didn't result in such catastrophic hormonal mood swings that I felt like a volcano erupting in the middle of a tornado. 

"We can take care of that for you," he says. Then he gets more serious. "About that spot on your left side. I feel confident it's a cyst but we'll want to get that looked at."

Then he tells me about his buddy Dr. Johnson, the surgeon he's referring me to. They go way back. Don't be alarmed that he works in the oncology department, he tells me. That's just where he's housed. He starts typing on the computer, letting me know he wants to make sure I can get in for a mammogram quickly -- just so I'm not left hanging. 

I hear all the words but they sort of bounce off me and scatter on the floor. 

"It's probably just a benign cyst," I tell Brad in the parking lot. "I have to get a mammogram." 

His face gets all somber. 

"It'll be fine," I tell him. "We'll just take this one step at a time."

He gets in his car to go to work. I get in my car and greet Jovie, who's been crying for me in the backseat. It's quiet. I start to pick at all the little pieces. The little breadcrumbs Dr. Jackson laid out.  It's probably just a cyst. 


Then these disconnected thoughts start. Like erratic raindrops at the start of a storm. 

Like how it's probably nothing. But what if it's something?

I think about how this would be just payback for my annual October rants about the creepy commercialization of breast cancer with all the opportunistic pink washers (I mean come on, pink handguns?) 

I remind myself that it's most likely nothing. But then I think about what I would look like bald. I recall all the times I told Brad I was going to shave my head because my hair is too thick and too unruly and how he said it wouldn't be a good look for me. I wonder if I could get a wig made of my own hair before it all came out. 

You are getting ahead of yourself, I tell myself.

I think about our high deductible insurance policy. How expensive things could get. 

I think about how I'm glad I finished my novel. 

You're being overdramatic, I tell myself. Dr. Jackson thinks it's just a cyst. 

Will I have to get a mastectomy? 

I try to remember all relevant parts of "The Emperor of All Maladies," that book about cancer I read last year. Breast cancer is well-funded and treatable. Long-term survival rates are growing. Doctors are able to buy more patients more time. But then cancer is very industrious. You can get rid of it in one place and it could show up in another. It's sneaky like that. Live long enough and cancer will eventually find you.

I start to think this is karma. I've been waiting for the cosmic retribution for my transgressions over the years. Comeuppance for the people I've hurt. Here it is. 

The mind is such a dark little thing.

I'm removed from myself as I observe all these thoughts flying scattershot in my brain. I decide then to write about it. This immediately calms me down a little. Separates me from what's happening to me. I'll be a journalist instead of a patient.

I can laugh about my narcissism and vanity. Overreaction and hypochondria. 

I just need to be calm and rational and take this one step at a time, I think to myself as I prepare, at 33, for my first mammogram.

Twenty-four hours later I'm in the waiting room at the imaging center. The other women are wearing the same snap-front green shirt as me. Most of their faces are more lined, their hair grayer. I smile weakly at another woman who's about my age. What are we doing here?

The technician has a lot of eyeshadow. I notice that. She talks loudly and cheerfully about what's going to happen, how I should stand, where I should place my hands and what she's doing with my breast as she squeezes it between two plates that then squash together like a metal press. I feel like a product on an assembly line as I'm repositioned and stamped again. And again. And again. 

They do an ultrasound, too, of the suspicious area. There's this painting on the ceiling of a lonely sea gull sitting on a cliff overlooking the sea. I stare at it as I wait to find out where I go next.

The technician comes back and tells me I can get dressed and then she'll take me to talk to the radiologist. Once I'm dressed they take me to a smaller waiting room behind a closed door. There's an elderly couple sitting in the room. They look dazed. He asks her if they'd told her anything. She says, no. But that they both knew they didn't take you to this waiting room unless there was bad news. Then she comments about how bleak the bare trees look against the grey winter sky. 

Like a suspense novel, she says.

I don't say anything. 

The radiologist comes for me. 

We get to a dark room where large screens show the pictures they've just taken of my breasts. 

"Want to have a seat so I can tell you the good news?" He asks.

So I sit down. And he tells me he doesn't see anything suspicious on my scans. He tells me he thinks the lump might be because of hormone fluctuations and that I should go back to Dr. Jackson for a followup in six weeks.

I relax.

Then he tells me I have high breast density. There's more tissue than fat in my breast and this can make it a bigger challenge to find cancer because both the tissue and the cancer would appear white on film.

Typical left boob problems.

He hands me a piece of paper that talks about breast density.

He asks me if I have any questions. I'm still dazed. I say no.

"I'll let you take the fast exit for people who have good news," he says and then sends me on my way.

I guess I'll just have to wait another day for the universe to realign itself.

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