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That Morning When I Was Hungover and Found a Tumor

couch photo
February 5, 2016.

The morning after a Thursday night of bourbon debauchery, I was in the shower feeling guilty about doing a late cancel for spin class. But I was hungover and didn’t want to burp up Woodford Reserve while trying to keep up with the instructor.

Soaping up my body, my hand lingered on the underside of my right breast and I felt a hard lump under my right nipple. My hand dropped away and I muttered “Fuck.”  I felt like I had been electrocuted. For a few seconds, I vacillated between thinking that I was still drunk, and had imagined the lump, and knowing that in that split second, my whole life had changed.

I settled on being convinced that I had breast cancer. And let my hand return to that spot again. And again. And again. The lump didn’t move around. It wasn’t soft. And it didn’t hurt when I pressed on it.

I felt oddly calm as I called the gynecologist’s office and asked the triage nurse what I should do because I had just found a lump in my breast. “You need to come in and be examined,” she said. And she made an appointment for me to see a nurse practitioner for that morning.

My husband was leaving town the next day for a week-long boys only ski trip. I didn’t want him to worry, so I didn’t tell him what I found or that I had an appointment. Instead, I kissed him as he went off to work and got dressed to go to my appointment.

But I had to tell someone. And I knew who it would be. My friend Erin. Erin doesn’t pussy foot around. Nor does she shy away from hard truths. Some people just know what to say when you’re in a tough situation. She is my person for that.

At the gynecologist’s office, the nurse examined me and easily found the lump. She sent me to get an an ultrasound where the tech lingered for what seemed like forever on the bottom part of my right breast. I had a mammogram right after because the tech said that the radiologist was going to want one. After the mammogram, I was told that, since the radiologist was not there, I would be called on Monday with the results.

Friday to Monday. Seventy-two hours.

It was going to be a long, long weekend. Fred left at 4:00 am Saturday morning and I was proud of myself for not saying anything to him. I just didn’t want him to worry. Plus, I had Erin to talk to. And my friends Uta and David took me out for a good time Saturday night and I told them what was going on. And they helped to distract me. I spent part of the weekend cleaning out a closet and filled up two large garbage bags with old papers and took them to be shredded.

Sunday evening came pretty quickly and I went to bed a little relieved knowing that Monday would bring some answers.

I got the call from the nurse practitioner mid-morning on Monday. The mammogram showed one spot. The ultrasound showed two. Both were deemed “consistent with carcinoma and highly suggestive of malignancy”.

The nurse practitioner gave me the names of two surgeons to call to schedule a biopsy, which I wrote down on the tiniest scrap of paper that I had grabbed from my desk before I rushed out in to the parking lot to have some privacy. I wrote the names down but had no intention of calling them first. I am a very, very lucky woman because one of our good friends is a physician. And I knew that if I called him, he and his staff would take care of everything as quickly as possible.

I don’t know how other women navigate the days after being first diagnosed. It is an extremely stressful time to begin with and then to have to figure out who to call, and make appointments with, must be unbearable.

My first appointment was that afternoon with the radiologist who was going to do my biopsy. I still want to hug him. He was amazing and looked at my mammogram and ultrasound films with me, explaining where the tumors were and what was going to happen next.

My biopsy appointment was set for Friday morning. Four days of more waiting. With an unsuspecting husband happily skiing the slopes of Telluride. A 16 year-old daughter by my side, unknowing. And a son at college going through his own hell of being in a triple where all three roommates had the flu.

Friday morning was the biopsy. It didn’t seem like a huge deal to me. I wasn’t nervous, just ready. I had waited since Monday, and with Fred being out of town, I was just so impatient. I’d had the guest room painted. Cleaned out drawers. And done every last little bit of laundry.

I went in to the office at 9:30 and was done by 11:00. Dr. G, the radiologist doing the procedure, has the kindest and most re-assuring manner. Like, “Yes, I got this for you.” And his staff was great, especially his nurse E. Lying on the table, I felt just a pinch of pain in the beginning while he was numbing me. Then he took a handful of tissue samples from both tumors and popped in some metal clips so that everybody would know where the samples came from. And was done.

No big deal.

E cleaned me up, talking sweetly and working gently, and took me to get a mammogram so that the clips could be seen on the films by the entourage of doctors I was slowly accumulating.

And I was on my way, counting down the hours until Fred got home that night and I could finally tell him. I kept playing around with all of the different ways that this could go down.

A song and dance routine like on Broadway. “Welcome home. Welcome home. Your wife has two tumors in her right tit. Welcome home.”

Or a serious monologue: “While you were away, traversing the chilly slopes of Telluride, something fierce was growing inside your wife’s right breast. They call it Cancer.”

But I knew that when I saw him, after keeping this to myself for a week, I would be emotional.

So I just went with the straight-up truth: “I have something to tell you. I’m going to be fine. It’s curable. But, I have cancer.”

“Welcome home.”

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