Talking myself through a cancer scare

Looking back you remember thinking, this is how your end could start.

You’re in the shower, washing the remnants of a solid workout down the drain. As you reach for the soap you secretly hope that afterwards you’ll look in the bathroom mirror and glimpse that abdominal definition you’ve been striving for. You rub the bar of soap between your palms and spread the lather on your neck and chest, your shoulders, your underarms, your breasts—

And it’s there you pause. You run the fingers of your left hand along the underside of your right breast—sure you’re imagining things—but there it is. A lump. Like you somehow swallowed a marble and it wound up in your right tit. You ponder the spot for a moment, rolling the blueberry-sized mass back and forth under your soapy middle finger. Abdominals forgotten, you rinse off, get out of the shower, and dig a phone number out of your medical files.

Two days later you’re sitting in your car, parked on the side of a road, high in the west hills. Having a view helps you think, helps you feel removed from the real world, keeps you grounded. The clouds part just enough to let the sun light up a small patch of the river, but remain dark and billowing at their edges. You watch the light play off the raindrops on your windshield and stare hazily at the clouds, which are so thick you wonder if you could climb them.

You look at the facts: you have incredibly dense breast tissue. You had a false alarm in 2010 with a mass—also in your right breast—that only an ultrasound could detect. The mammogram missed it entirely. Your family history of breast cancer is solid in terms of occurrence, but not in terms of BRCA1 or 2, so you’re clear there. Your OBGYN gave you the number of a “fabulous” breast surgeon, “because even if this lump is nothing, given your history, you will likely need a breast surgeon at some point in your life.”

Some people get to have personal trainers; you will have a breast surgeon.

You think about how painful your mom’s implants were for her. You think about how much you dislike the look of fake breasts, no matter how tastefully they’re done. You are really proud of how nice your breasts look now; nothing could replace them.

You think it might not be so bad to live without a right breast. Now you have a legitimate excuse to take archery lessons. Sleeping on your stomach—which you love—would be 50% easier. You start thinking of cool tattoo ideas for the scar cover-up, and you’re positive it would involve an octopus.

The clouds shift and the golden spotlight on the river disappears. You think about chemotherapy, and you know you don’t want to do it. You’ve seen what it does to people, how it leaves them helpless, how it only weakens and destroys healthy cells. And you are not weak. Nothing about you is weak. There must be other ways. You’ll try all the other ways first, you decide, no matter how much your doctors and family ram that miracle-poison’s life-saving attributes down your throat.

Briefly, you think about the possibility of dying—and you smile. Death has never scared you because it is just another part of life—a part you came to terms with as a child. As Robin Williams said in the movie Hook: “To die would be a great adventure.” But you have too many adventures left here, and it would be a shame to not experience them all.

Death is a friend that everyone has, whether they like it or not, and she will come to take your hand one day—but not today, you decide—nor any time soon.

You look at the clock on your dashboard and realize you have to leave for work. You’ll sit behind the desk, smile, and reply “fine” when people ask how you’re doing. You won’t mention the fifteen-minute scan scheduled tomorrow that could determine the next years of your life. And you won’t mention how angry you are at the thought of your story ending because of a cancerous cyst no bigger than the raindrops on your window.

Your life deserves a grand finale, not a slow fade to black.

You resolutely stare at the sky and for a moment, you let the world go. You watch it float away under the thick clouds and accept that life is brief. For whatever reason, this thought is comforting. You decide that no matter what the scan finds—be it tomorrow’s or the scans you’ll have to endure every year for the rest of your life—you will continue to live well. You will fight and be brave for the people you love. It’s all you know how to do.

You take a deep breath and start the car, wipe the rain from the windshield, and begin driving down towards the city, thinking of all the amazing ways you’d rather see your story end.

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