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Joining the C Club - Part One

Okay. Most women know that every month they should be performing a breast self-exam. I never thought much about it, but did take some time every so often to poke around to make sure everything was normal. I mean, really, at 42 years old I never expected to actually find anything. I started getting mammograms at age 37 when my gynecologist lectured me on the need to establish a baseline. Fine. I went and got scrunched in the machine that was obviously designed by sadistic men. And a week later they called me back because of something shadowy. Turned out to be nothing. I learned that getting called back was relatively normal.

At age 40, the mammo's became an annual experience. Walk in to the little room and wonder aloud to the technician, "has it really been a year since this torture?" And this year I faithfully went in at the end of March. Exam by the doc, and then off to be squeezed in the machine. A few weeks later I got the form letter that stated my mammogram was fine and see you next year.

I had an appointment with my GP on August 5th. Just a routine wellness exam, to check all my blood levels and make sure my high blood pressure hadn't gotten any higher. The night before the exam I was sitting on the couch watching TV. I hadn't done a breast self exam in awhile, so I began to push and prod, not thinking much about it.

But then I stopped.

Something was there, right below the skin. It was hard and felt about the size of a grape. I poked around some more, and it hurt a bit. I checked the other breast in the same spot. Nothing there. Hmmmm.

I turned off the TV and turned to Google. You try typing in "lump in the breast" and see what kind of scary stuff pops up! But the thing I kept seeing was that most lumps are benign, nothing to worry about. Yet something kept nagging at me. I wanted it to be benign, but somehow already knew otherwise.

I went to Dr. R and told him about the lump. He did a breast exam and said that the wise thing to do would to get it checked out, but to try not to worry too much in the meantime.

Next step was to schedule a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound test. The diagnostic m'gram was not much different than the normal one except that they put a little bb type thing right above where the lump is and take pictures from different angles. The bb shows the radiologist where to look.

I went into the exam room for the ultrasound, and got up on the table. The tech was getting me ready as we waited for the radiologist. Dr. T came in, and said basically that there was nothing showing on the mammogram. I can't remember exactly what I said, but it sounded like he was not too concerned. I said, come over here and I'll point it out to you.

I watched as the ultrasound picked up the mass. A blob of black surrounded by wispy white tissue. It looked huge on the screen, but of course it was magnified. To my eyes it appeared smooth on top, with tendrils extending downward - it reminded me of a jellyfish. Dr. T was quiet as he took different images and recorded them. He supplied no answers to my unspoken questions. I was still under the impression that this could be a cyst, like all my friends told me it probably was. He also did an ultrasound under my arm. I guess I should have realized he was checking out the lymph nodes. But I didn't. He said that the tech would schedule me for a biopsy.

Now that was an experience. Dr. W was a very nice woman, but when she said I would only feel a bit of pressure I believed her. Pressure that felt like a very sharp pointy thing stabbing into my body, I guess is what she meant. Even with extra anesthetic, it hurt. Bad. I had asked her that if it were a cyst, could she just extract the fluid while she was in there. She looked at me with confusion and said, if this were a cyst, you wouldn't be here. I guess Dr. T forgot to inform me of that...she did say that some masses you can tell by looking that it is cancer. Mine was not one of those types, so there was still some hope.

Because it was Friday I would not hear anything until the following Tuesday. I told Dr. W that I would be out of town on a church staff retreat at a camp but to just call my cell phone.

At this point I had not really told anyone what was going on. My mom and a few friends and a colleague at church who dealt with breast cancer a few years before. Somehow I made it through Monday of the retreat, but Tuesday morning I was a bit jittery. It was August 24, 2010. During our morning break time, I grabbed my cell and saw that I had missed a call. It was the doc, and she gave the call back number. I called back and then had to wait for a return call as she was with a patient.

I walked down to the lake at the camp and sat out on the pier. One of my colleagues was already out there and I told her what was going on and asked if she would mind sitting with me as I awaited the call. I waited about fifteen minutes. I watched the calm water, the dragonflies flitting above the lily pads. The sun was still low in the eastern sky. The air was calm, the trees quiet. A beautiful late summer day. At approximately 11:20 a.m. my phone rang. I looked up at B and said to her, this is it. I answered the phone and in ten seconds my life changed.

Perhaps we all know that at some point in our lives we will eventually receive a diagnosis of cancer. After all, one in three women and one in two men will get cancer. But it's always some point in the future, after our bodies have worn down. You don't expect it at midlife. You hear of others getting it. I had just spent the past year and a half walking alongside my mother in her journey with lung cancer. Chemo, radiation, hair loss, more radiation on the brain, and bone loss that resulted in two broken hips. A long, scary journey. But hers, not mine.

Yet when Dr W said the words - I am sorry to have to tell you, you have breast cancer - my life turned a corner. And I was embarking on a journey that all at once seemed very frightening. No longer a bystander, I was now a member of the cancer club.

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