The Call that Changed My World

I took the call in my bedroom. I had been waiting to hear back from the doctor, and my nerves had been taut since my appointment. I had had an inconclusive mammogram, followed by another, then a biopsy, and then an interminable wait for results.

My kids and their friends were playing in the living room just outside the bedroom door, kids whose lives were full of pretend play and drawing and crafts, kids who didn’t ever hear the C word.

I tried to calm myself. The doctor had assured me that this was routine, that second mammograms were sometimes required, and biopsies often came out fine. This is what I told myself while I waited.

I thought back to the biopsy I had had ten years ago. The doctor had found a lump and wanted to check it out. I delayed. Women my age didn’t get cancer. I finally came around and had the biopsy. It was benign and I was relieved. At that time I had been 30. Now I was 40. Surely it was another false alarm. I tried to calm myself.

The precursor to this call had been my most recent checkup, which just happened to be on my birthday. I had mentioned to the doctor that I was feeling some discomfort under my left arm and that I felt a lump there. He thought it would be a good idea to get it checked out and ordered a mammogram. Happy birthday to me.

It wasn’t my first mammogram. I’d had one with the previous scare. It turns out it was lucky I’d had one, because the fact that they had this to compare it to made a small, four millimeter dot stand out. It was probably a little like finding Pluto, just a little less celebratory. And it wasn’t even where I’d found the lump. It was in the other breast, hidden away where it could have just grown and grown, unbeknownst to me. But it didn’t grow. I was one of the lucky ones.

The doctor gave me the news that it was cancer over the phone as I stood alone in my bedroom, the kids playing happily in the next room. The tears came. How would I tell my husband? My parents? I allowed myself tears for mere minutes before I pulled myself together, at least temporarily, for the sake of the kids. It turns out my tears and I would become old friends.

The days and weeks that followed became a blur of doctors visits and pamphlets, assurances that I had time to make decisions and guidance not to wait too long. Get it out. Get it all out, I thought, but the doctor assured me that a lumpectomy would be enough. They advise against bilateral mastectomies these days.

I asked the big question everyone asks in this situation. Why me? I had led a good life. I didn’t drink, really. I tried to eat healthy and exercise. So why me? Breast cancer is something that happened to older women. Here I was, a forty year old mother of four young kids. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

I brought this up to the oncologist one day and asked about the possibility of genetic testing. He said he would check. I waited, and waited, and waited. The year was coming to a close. It had been a doozy, with doctor’s appointments and surgery and radiation. We were well over our deductible, and the genetics test itself was two thousand dollars. On December 29th the nurse called and asked if I could get to the lab. Insurance had approved the test, and she wanted to slide it in before the new year.

The test came back positive for hereditary breast cancer. My ordeal would not be over yet. This increased my risk of recurrence to eighty percent.I worried about my daughter, my sister, my mom, and all of the other women in my family who might share the gene. The results also meant I was at high risk for ovarian cancer. We had more discussions with more doctors, a genetics counselor, and a plastic surgeon. That bilateral mastectomy that I had been advised against was back on the table. We talked about risks. The plastic surgeon said he would go to Vegas with my odds. My breasts and ovaries were ticking time bombs.

I watched Italy win the World Cup as I recovered from a hysterectomy/oopherectomy, and my kids got to experience their mom going through rapid onset menopause. I was 42.

I got my mastectomy between stints of student teaching. I was 43.

My kids were mostly too young to understand. My eldest was an eighth grader who was scheduled to go to D.C. in a month. I worried that I’d mess up his plans. My daughter was in fifth grade. She was old enough to know why I was going into surgery and in her worried state would cling to me for years after. My younger boys were both too little to know, so we kept it from them until fairly recently.

At some point soon after that first fateful phone call, I remember distinctly being at the park with my kids. That day I watched my family as if from a distance and saw myself out of the picture. I was overwhelmed with sadness and the need to be there for them, to watch them grow up, to graduate, to get married, to have children of their own. For the first time in my life the possibility of not being around for that clung to me like an octopus.

I knew in that moment that I would do whatever it took to survive.

It will be twelve years this March.

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A Frozen Moment In Time


Krisztina Tordai / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

If I could freeze a moment in time, it would not be this moment. At this moment, Goose is hunched over a bowl of oatmeal, staring at his phone, Maverick is still asleep, and Mr. A is bustling around in the small space of time between one trip and the next.

If I could freeze a moment in time, it would be lying on the blanket in the back yard with Smartypants and Sunshine, reading books while the dogs snoozed next to us. We would turn over and gaze at the mass of leaves on the giant backyard maple, leaves that provide a summer blanket of cool and protection from the intense sun. The house was newer, with a wonderful skylight that provided much needed sunlight in the winter, but the effect in summer was oven-like. Still, that heat drove us outside, to fresh air and family time.

I would not freeze yesterday. Maverick came to eat a quick dinner after soccer practice with his Beats headphones covering both ears. Goose spent what time he wasn’t doing homework for his new college classes in his room on his computer. Mr. A came home from one trip and immediately got on the phone, while I, his taxi driver, drove in silence.

If I could freeze a moment in time, it would be tickle fights with Goose and Maverick. I would be the tickle monster and have Goose firmly in my grasp, to great gushes of giggles, when I would be attacked by little Maverick, aka Scrappy Doo at the time, coming to save his brother. The tickle monster would switch out one for the other, grabbing Maverick, to loads of laughter, and Goose would run and stand in the doorway, safe, unwilling to risk himself for his younger sibling. Ah, such is the nature of birth order.

I would not freeze last week. I asked the boys to give me 20 minutes of cell phone free time, just 20 minutes. We’ll put our technology away. We’ll talk. With the protests that ensued, you would think I had asked them to give up a kidney (which I think they would be much more willing to part with). I insisted, and they put them away, but they watched the clock. To their credit, they did make an effort to communicate, but as soon as that 20 minutes was up, they scrambled for the phones. My plan was to try again, to extend the time until we were technology free for about 2 hours of the day, but that genie is fat, and squeezing him back into that bottle is going to take some effort.

If I could freeze a moment in time, it would be pulling on rubber boots and walking through the muddy field behind our house with the dogs, Oreo the cat following us. Splashing through puddles, walking and talking, though I couldn’t tell you today what the topic of conversation might have been. Maybe school drama. Maybe the days the teacher made them practice walking in a line because some student (you know who you are) wouldn’t behave. Group punishment is not fair to kids like mine, kids who listen attentively, bright kids who want to be in school and want to learn.

Later I would walk the same field with Goose and Maverick, though now drained of its wonderful, stinky puddles. Goose found a frog one day and carried the poor thing the entire length of the walk. He showed it to me when we neared the house. He must have held too tight somewhere along the way, poor thing.

I would not freeze my 50th birthday, a day we were traveling with the robotics group. The boys woke up and came to my hotel room to wish me a happy birthday, and I didn’t see them again all day. We sat in the stands together, me below with the parents and Mr. A, and them above with their friends.  We ate at the same restaurant, me at the end with the parents and Mr. A, and them at another table with their friends. It’s okay, I thought. We’ll celebrate tomorrow, I thought. Tomorrow came, and we suggested a trip to Seattle. We’re tired, they said. I have laundry, Goose protested. So we just went home. It’s no fun celebrating with people who want to be somewhere else.

(Though I think it’s not so much that Goose didn’t want to celebrate as that he hates big cities, thinking the crime statistics will sidle up to him whispering, “You’re next.”)

If I could freeze a moment in time, it would be one of our walks down the beach, probably the one where a young Maverick, walking backwards, fell into one of the salt-water puddles created in the sand. It was fairly deep, and he was drenched. He wasn’t amused, though the rest of us were, and he carried his anger back to camp. Hopefully he can look back on it and laugh now. It’s these little harmless mistakes that give life spice.

I might freeze the time Mr. A picked up a kelp crab. If you’ve never seen a kelp crab, they are nothing like the oval, awkward Dungeness you are used to seeing in the store. Kelp crabs are small bodied, with these long, long legs. So long, in fact, that the trick of picking a crab up with your thumb and forefinger by the back, a trick that works perfectly fine for Dungeness, doesn’t work for them, as Mr. A found out. The crab easily reached around and grabbed hold of his hand. He flailed a bit and dropped the crab, but then to my astonishment he picked it up again the same way…with the same result. What was he expecting?

So many days, so many wonderful memories. Sometimes I feel that they are being overlaid, like too many layers in Photoshop, with other, newer realities, causing distortion. I have to fight to remember the good times, the love, and the laughter.

If I could freeze a moment in time, I would go back and search the days prior to 2004.

I would not freeze the day I got the call one week after my 40th birthday that my mammogram looked suspicious, and could I please come in for a biopsy.

I would not freeze the day I got the call that yes, it was cancer.

That’s the day my moments in time took on a whole new meaning.


graymalkn / Foter / CC BY

Three Dots

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Tattoo….You?.”Do you have a tattoo? If so, what’s the story behind your ink? If you don’t have a tattoo, what might you consider getting emblazoned on you skin?

Three dots,

front and center

left and right.

Guide marks

as alone I lie

on the alter of machinery,

a toxic stream of radiation

beaming through my flesh;

grinding and throbbing

a death knell

to cancer.

Three dots

representing life.