One year ago, I had a needle biopsy.
I scheduled a mammogram early in the morning, so I could get in and out. The plan for the day was have a fun day with the kiddies on their day off from school.
It was with this matter-of-fact attitude I was working that Wednesday morning. I stripped down, was positioned, smooshed and uncomfortably crushed for the mammogram. In the subsequent ultrasound, all proceeded normally, until it didn’t.
“Have you felt any lumps here?” the tech asked, motioning to my left breast.
“When was the last time you had a physician exam?”
“Last month,” I said as she was clicking and marking and clicking and marking what looked like nothing different from the other spots.
She waved her wand over some black, empty-looking areas. “It looks like there is some fluid in this one. It happens from time to time.”
She called in the doctor who, no lie, was named Dr. Win. A good sign or irony screwing with me?
“It looks like there’s some fluid in this milk duct. We need to look at it. The easiest way to do this is through a needle biopsy, where we insert a hollow needle and take a sample,” he explained.
Matter-of-fact me wins out over the me who wants to crumple into tears. “When can we do this?”
“Let’s see if we can do it this morning.”
He leaves the room to make arrangements and I scramble to make sure there’s someone watching my kids.
In walks the next doctor and, I kid you not, his name was Dr. Luk (pronounced “luck”). This is a good sign?
I notice his shiny wedding ring as he operates the ultrasound wand and call him on it. “That’s either a new ring or you’re a newlywed.”
“Very astute observation. I got married three weeks ago,” the lucky one said.
Bully for him — he’s newly married and I’m lying here contemplating how my children will cope with a sick mother, how I will have to grin-and-bear the shitty patch my partner and I are going through if I’m sick, how I’m going to have to pack a lifetime of lessons into my kids if I’m sick.
Luk is a trainee and when the big cheese arrives, I can see that the Gods really are laughing at me. His name is Dr. Ha, as in ha-ha, you think you can live the way you want and avoid the afflictions of mortals? I am here to laugh in your face and shock you into reality with a giant needle and the threat of a certain sooner-than-later death.
Ha talks me through the procedure. Betadine wash, marking me, lidocaine, lots of lidocaine (I’m one of those fair-haired people that has a resistance to novocaine) and he goes in. The snap of the biopsy needle sound sounds just like my son’s Nerf gun. Digging around, digging around, snap, more digging, snap.
I made a deal with myself — I can cry on the way home. But while this man is rooting around inside my left breast — my favorite, by the way — the tears start running.
After steri-strips and ice packs, I am packed up and ready to go. They say I’ll have the results in three-to-five business days. A lifetime.
There’s no time to cry — I have to take my kids on a promised adventure. Everything is just as it was, yet completely different.
I’m a little dazed. How am I going to deal with this if it’s bad? A line from the musical “Hamilton” pops into my head and starts playing on a loop: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” This could be my mantra.
Later, after a glorious day on the water with my children, I fall into a chair in front of my television, thankful I made it through. My partner inquires, “Did it hurt?”
Yes. But I’m pretty sure that was the least of it.
Day One Being back at work is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m happy for the distraction. On the other hand, everything seems so futile. What does it matter if I’m dying?
My 845 am meeting with a new employee doesn’t happen — she, a grown woman, doesn’t show until 10 am. This is not going to cut it in an office filled with people who live and die by the calendar. Strike that, let’s just live by the calendar.
I get home early enough to touch base with my medical insurer on a couple questions and then bump up my disability coverage. You never know when you might need it.
Day Two Today, I am obsessed with two things — my friends who have died from breast cancer and the pains I’m feeling.
No one tells you this, but breastfeeding is really painful. The pains I feel today are very similar to the feel of the milk coming in and stretching the delicate tissue. Things feel a little rearranged and my skin is bruised and tender. I imagine I can almost feel the fluid moving (or in my case, not moving) around the duct system. It’s my imagination, I’m sure, but I don’t want any of this.
Early in my career, three of my colleagues were diagnosed with breast cancer in rapid succession. Jean used her cancer as a wake-up call. Now, more than 20 years later, competes in triathlons. Linda, who was like my second mother, was diagnosed, treated “successfully” and died three years later. I was crushed. Amy, a friend, a mentor and one of the most talented creatives I’ve had the pleasure to work with, was “successfully” treated right after Linda died. She passed away six years later. The fashion industry, where I do most of my work, is filled with women who have died from breast cancer, so forgive me if my referring to breast cancer as a death sentence seems morbid. I think it seems real.
That evening, I attend a party. I drink a little too much bourbon and eat a little too much cheese. I talk one-on-one with the women I truly like — women thrown together by the New York public school system. I grab two friends and give them rides home in my Uber. I don’t accept their offers of money. Everyone needs a little kindness, and maybe they will pay it forward when my kids are motherless.
Saturday – The Day That Doesn’t Count This waiting three-to-five business days is bullshit. If I had it in me to raise money for research, it would be to develop a rapid test for biopsies. This is bullshit.
We hit the soccer fields at 8 am. The weather is like Santa Monica in the fall. Cool and dry in the morning, with the promise of heat later from the blasting sun. I love California. I would love to live in California… If I live.
I have a surreal moment on the soccer field. I am checking my Facebook feed and I start seeing pictures of myself, being reposted from my page to my friend Rita’s page. Why would she do this? And then I think: Am I dead? Have I died and Rita is reposting my pictures as a memorial? I make a remark to another mom. She replies. Whew, so either we’re all dead or Rita’s just reposting.
My day is filled with sports practices and games. I cheer, I clap and yell at moments of refereeing injustice.
We bake that evening — just because. I get angry when the kids are not able to do the most simple things in the kitchen or help clean up. How will they know how to do this when I am gone?
I’m clearly not mother of the year, but at least I’m here.
Sunday – Another Day Against The Count Another day for kid things… but then the phone rings.
A friend and esteemed colleague is dead — killed himself. Suicide.
This puts it all into perspective.
I am alive. I may not like the way things are going, but I can change them.
He is dead. Nothing can be changed. His story is written.
I am eulogizing him in my mind all day long. Jeffrey on the red carpet. Jeffrey on the phone. Jeffrey and I exchanging snarky emails. Lamenting about aging, working in a business where opportunities are diminishing, teenaged kids. Still getting really excited when a story turns out well, after all these years. Eating a Mister Softee ice cream cone on the carpet, all the time.
I am sad beyond comprehension.
I call a friend — one of my best — to tell him the awful news about Jeffrey. We commiserate and talk about the whys.
“I have to tell you — it’s terrible — but I am relieved,” he said. “I am so terribly sorry about Jeffrey, but I am so relieved the news is not about you or the kids.”
Oh God. What if I have to tell him sad news?
Day Three I am sure this will be the day I get the call. I adjust my phone’s ringer so that I can hear it, yet it is not so loud the office will become unhinged.
And the phone rings and rings and rings. Jeffrey questions. Why? How? What do you know? I’m so sorry for your loss. The stories and tributes start appearing. I read them all, looking for a glimmer of information that will make me feel better. There’s nothing. He was so beloved, respected and admired. Everyone has something to say about his graciousness, his professionalism, his classicism. I agree with it all. He was top notch and not of this world. I hope he is at peace.
Grief is exhausting.
Day Four It’s been six days since I had the needle biopsy. W.T.F. Have mercy.
Day Five The phone rings with the number “Restricted.”
I answer and it is Dr. Su, my usual doctor. No Win, Luk or Ha — does this mean it’s bad news and they gave it to someone who knows me? Or the opposite — good news requires a delivery person of less stature in the cancer hierarchy?
“I have the results of your biopsy and everything looks fine.”
Fine like cancer-free or fine like someone else will call with the bad news?
Clean, clear, free. Come back in six months.
I am lucky, lucky, lucky. And now, having stared down a certain death for three-to-five days, I am going back to living… A lot more aggressively than before.