I have written of late that when life gives you shaky, make martinis, but what most of you didn’t know, life has been preparing me for the cocktail hour as well. If you haven’t noticed by the strange Pepto pink haze around the White House, it’s breast cancer awareness month.
No, that girlie hue in the skyline of the American capital is not representative of the pastel performance of our President’s first 2012 debate; it’s October, and it’s time to shake your boobies for good breast health.
For me, September just happens to be the month my insurance company waves its wizarding wand of consenting coverage, so I never let the ninth month of the year end before I have my C cups crushed and compressed without too much consternation. Not to give much of my personal chronology away, I have been completing this task for the last few years always culminating in a letter from the radiologist saying I have a great rack, see you next year. Well, not this year.
To make matters worse, I recently signed up for voice to text voicemail, so as the notification alerted me to the message, there it was in black and white: the radiologist would like to speak with you regarding your mammogram. So many other words are on the screen, but only two screamed in my head: radiologist…mammogram.
I hit call-back. I’m not at all that sure how I accomplished this as my hands were shaking uncontrollably. As I was waiting for an answer, I’m telling myself this must be some new procedure at my doctor’s office. Yeah, that’s it; they want to tell me personally the good news. It’s the kinder, gentler, post-Obamacare medical system that wants to acknowledge my good bill of health instead of admonish my late bill of lading.
It turns out that they didn’t want to celebrate my good eating habits, my daily workout regime, or my lower than normal vice to virtue ratio after all. I was told you have a change in your baseline breast tissue, please come back in as soon as possible. What? What does that mean? The more questions I asked, the more confused I got. “Significant? What do you mean by significant?” Nothing…just the ringing in my ears and the synched, deep-chest pounding of breast cancer – breast cancer with every beat of my heart.
I sat at my desk numb, unable to move. This is a dream. I have too many people counting on me. I have a partner with Parkinson’s; I have a child I’m not finished pushing into therapy. My job’s not done here. And then the ultimate betrayal of my body…tears. Jesus, get a hold of yourself, ‘Schmootz. Do something. Get control. Get more information. Get on the internet. Oh, no, not the internet. I’m lost in a disturbing pink haze of 5K races and Komen ribbons. God. No, literally this time, God…give me strength.
I’d like to use a lifeline while I still have one, damn it, and phone a friend…and I did. Ok, speaking was not a bodily function I could complete at the time, so I emailed a mate. Regardless, I could think of only one person who had been through the battle and come out on the other side; she not only writes about and plays a cancer survivor on stage, she is one. I had to ask her, what does this all mean, baseline changes and asymmetry? What are they not telling me? Do I have cancer? Oh, and by the way, did you happen to loose your mind as well as your left breast?
I have to say that I have been pretty fortunate in my travels and in my happenstance to meet quite a few strong, powerful, and giving women, none that I admire more than the woman who returned my email immediately with the invitation, “Let’s Skype.” Yes! Screw WebMD, I’m about to speak with someone who knows that being a survivor is more than creating a convenient alliance and holding on to the island.
This is the woman who makes me want to be a better writer. In her one character play, My Left Breast, she describes the only cast member, Susan, to be played with humor and engagement, aware of her flaws, never self pitying. She moves from moment to moment, as if she, like the audience, is discovering everything for the first time. I couldn’t have said it better myself (and would never try). Now, I won’t elaborate on the conversation, as it is personal, but what I will say is that when the conversation ended, I was laughing, a little more in control…and cognitive.
I left the office, got in my car, and called my better three quarters. The conversation began as if any other, “So, honey, what’s shakin’?”
“Me,” she says. (The fact Michael J. Fox is making a sitcom out of being a Parkinson’s patient comes as no surprise to me.)
“When are you coming home?” I ask.
“What’s wrong?” she replies. I swear she has spidey sense.
The mammogram detected a tiny mass, so small that I didn’t noticed it doing my monthly self exams…in the central region of my left breast. I actually laughed out loud when my doctor said the words. The office scheduled another mammogram for conclusiveness and a sonogram to determine if the mass is fluid filled, and if so, a needle biopsy.
Fast forward six days and several martinis later, and the two of us are sitting in what looks like the dressing room area of a TJMaxx. Actually, Randi is sitting under the please turn off your electronic device sign DMing a body part model in Malibu, and I am pacing the floor in four inch heels, draped in a faded, light-blue, gingham exam cape. Suddenly, I have the good sense to get my head out of my chest and look around. There are several other women sitting around the room similarly dressed in these silly capes. Could it be that today’s female superhero costume comes in light-blue gingham? And could the new mam-signal, alerting a crisis, be the bright-shining sign on the wall that says Early Detection Save Lives? Hmmm…
I am brought back from my thought process by my name being called from what Randi tells me is the third time. I can’t lie, I’m scared, I’m really scared. I can feel my pulse begin to quicken with the corresponding beating of my heart…which has now mysteriously migrated to my throat. These boots may have been made for walking a few minutes ago, but now I am firmly planted, unwilling to put one well-heeled foot beyond the other.
My firm stance of denial is soon uprooted as I begin to receive the distress signal, Early Detection Saves Lives, Early Detection Saves Lives, Early Detection Saves Lives. I look around the room as all the other caped afraid-ers are receiving it as well. From that moment, I knew what I, what we, had to do, join forces, and save lives. I cinch up my cape, kiss my partner, and follow the nurse to the exam room. I have shaky legs, but forward steps, something I learned from that lady in my life.
Once inside the barren room, my left breast is mashed, smashed, squeezed, and squashed. It is wo-manhandled, manipulated, pushed around, and sonogramed. And then she asks me, “Can we do that again?” (I remember a time when being fondled that much cost me an elegant dinner or at least a credit card number beforehand.) I said, “Sure.”
And then, nothing. Not that I didn’t get any return on the boob job, there just wasn’t anything there…no lump, no bump, no mass, no shadow. Nothing, a glorious, beautiful void. The radiologist leans inside the room with a smile, says I have a mysteriously great rack, see you next year. I stand up, walk to the dressing room, and deliver the good news to the one who is un-shaky in her support.
Driving home I can’t quite shake the image of all those women in their superhero capes, fighting for healthful justice and a life sentence. It’s undeniable that early detection does save lives. Whether the message comes wrapped in a bright pink brand or is conveyed by the support of one friend talking to another, getting regular screening tests is the best way to lower your risk of dying from breast cancer. Period.
Me, I’ll live to fight another day. I had a scare, but fear can be a great motivating factor. I’ll continue to lead a healthy lifestyle, I’ll continue to self examine once a month, and I’ll continue to get my yearly mammogram. As for now, there will be no casting call for My Left Breast. Inspiration doesn’t need to be a sequel, anyway…just a revival.