When you find out you have breast cancer, you might be pulling ramen from water with a pasta fork. Your son might be watching “SpongeBob,” so you might hear that dull drone of Patrick Star the starfish in your mind as you fall.
You may, as you hear the word “cancer,” feel most of the hot noodles slide along your arm as your legs buckle.
It would seem there is no way not to fall to the floor when you hear the word cancer. It’s not hard to say, but it’s a big word, especially when you just had your first mammogram, you’re 41 and there’s no history of any of this anywhere in your family.
Your first thought will be NO. I do not consent. I don’t want to do this. We are supposed to build a deck. What about swimming lessons? I want to write some poems. But our vacation! This was to be the year for all these things. Not this.
Given that I had no family history and the recommendations have changed, so some doctors aren’t referring women to mammograms until they’re 45, I figured that at 41 I would know the baseline and be told I didn’t need to come back for awhile.
And I don’t know how to say this delicately, but I don’t have a lot of tissue. I didn’t feel a lump.
In fact, there were no clues. The right breast was always giving me trouble during the nearly three years of breastfeeding my insatiable child (now 8), so I assumed that was what we’d be seeing. I figured it was all the mastitis and clogged ducts that plagued me. I eat well and grow food for our family. I run marathons.
The results came back that I had the most dense tissue (BI-RADS 4, they call it) and that something could be seen in the right breast that was often suspicious: microcalcifications, which are an indicator on a mammogram that something questionable was going on inside.
Then, a magnified mammogram showed the same thing and the radiologist recommended a biopsy. I was still laughing. Surely not me, the president of the itty-bitty committee? I had reclaimed my body from personal trauma and chronic illness and it was under my control, despite patriarchy’s best attempts. Surely not.
When they put me up on that exam table with a hole in it for my right breast, I couldn’t help but feel like a car. Raise me up, drain me out, put a new filter in and I’ll be good to go.
And that’s how we got here, back in the kitchen with the ramen in the golden light. A diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ D.C.I.S. — abnormal cells in the milk duct, considered the earliest form of breast cancer (stage 0) and noninvasive. It is treatable. The long-term prognosis is good. This is what mammograms are looking for.
It’s still a life-altering thing to hear.
Once you have a diagnosis, you’re pulled into the rest of the health care machine (if you are fortunate enough to have health insurance or the means to afford treatment). First, an MRI that I had to get one lone Xanax to handle, which affected me in no less than seven minutes in the waiting room, to the delight of my husband because he thinks I’m hilarious high. It cost 57 cents, which I kept pointing out to anyone who would listen.
The Xanax turned the MRI into an experience. I listened to classical music and it melded with the clanking magnets to create a not-unpleasant industrial noise-rock soundtrack. This time, both breasts were in a hole.
The MRI revealed a swollen lymph node next to the cancer, so I had to get an ultrasound. The ultrasound then showed that node was fine, but there was another one on the other side that looked weird and needed a biopsy. I tried to talk them out of it because I was starting to lose my mind.
Then I had to wait and find out those results, too, which made me want more than just one 57-cent silly-pill.
It ended up taking two lumpectomies to get it all, and I just finished six weeks of radiation — a combo that spared my hair (no chemo) but not my skin, which bloomed red before disintegrating and relegated me to the sofa and sci-fi reruns (not entirely bad). My medical team has been amazing and evidence-based, and I have a relatively low risk of recurrence.
The thing that’s most surprising is I had no lump, I had no inkling and I didn’t know breast cancer could be like this.
Now that it’s done, I feel mostly happy I didn’t wait a few years for a mammogram. And my husband and I talk with our son, who now has an impression, the little thespian, of “dumb cells,” as we called them. They stick out their teeth, close their eyes, and bounce around the living room, apparently.
And I feel lucky. Each year, about 245,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States, many with an invasive form. Early, noninvasive cancer like mine is incredibly treatable now, and it has a proven, scientific process that tells these mutant bad cells not to kill you.
For me, with lifelong depression and anxiety, this experience has meant being brought to tears by the smallest kindnesses. After one of my biopsies, I walked downtown with my chest wrapped tightly and stopped into a coffee shop. The barista was corporately trained to be that friendly, I knew, but the warmth of his hands transferred to my cup and the connection carried me to the bus stop and home, where I cried and cried.
Our son started swimming lessons the evening I got home from the second surgery and the poetry is flowing. The deck didn’t get built because we couldn’t afford it along with the costs of my care. But I am alive.
Jenny Rose Ryan is a writer, editor and communications consultant in the Pacific Northwest.
Rites of Passage is a first-person column from Styles about notable life transitions and events, big, small and absurd.