Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pink Ribbons In October And My New Awareness

If you would have asked me on any given day before this year what month was dedicated to the awareness of breast cancer and the importance of early detection, I would have given you a blank stare followed by a wild guess. I’ve always been aware of the pink ribbons and miles-long walks to find a cure for breast cancer, but the disease had never entered the inner circle of my life.

Late this summer, the beating drums of this cause began their dim sound in the backdrop of my normal life. I was at my neighborhood pool where a friend mentioned she was participating in the Susan G Komen 3-day cure. It’s a 60-mile walk over three days, held in October, to help raise money to find a cure for breast cancer. At the pool, I also met one of her friends who had recently gone through the ordeal of fighting and surviving this type of cancer.  I was moved with admiration for this woman who splashed playfully in the pool with her young kids. She wore her hair in a cute and very short cut, an all too familiar style after chemotherapy. I was invited to join the walk but I begged off and offered instead to donate money.

By mid September, the drums got a little bit louder. During a routine shower, I noticed a small lump on my left breast. I prodded and squeezed at my breast for the next few minutes trying to make the small bb-size lump disappear back into my body. Later that afternoon I made an appointment to have a mammogram, a date that had been long overdue. I scheduled it for September 16. I was kicking myself for not having done it months sooner.

I told no one. I went to my appointment alone, taking a deep breath as I pulled open the door to the Washington Radiology Associates office. I signed in and took my seat aside a couple of women and wondered if they felt as uneasy as I did. The mammogram confirmed my finding. There was a shadowy mass on the screen and the technician measured it and labeled it. “There is a focal asymmetry approximately at the left 3:00 position.  “Yeah, that’s what I felt too.”  I thought, wishing she and I had been wrong. My left breast was then examined under the gooey eye of a sonogram. “What do you think it is?” I asked the radiologist. He said he couldn’t really tell and that he would only be guessing. A needle biopsy was scheduled for September 22.

I still told no one because I wanted to first find out what this all meant before putting anyone else on a bad rollercoaster ride of stress and emotions. I tried to go on with my daily routine for the next five days. The idea that the quality of my life and that of my son’s was being threatened by this lump kept creeping into my thoughts. One day before the procedure, my regular doctor cancelled the biopsy and had me make an appointment with a breast surgeon. The plan was to eliminate having to go through two invasive procedures.  She implied I would probably need surgery to remove the mass. The beating drums got louder.

I met with the breast surgeon on Thursday, September 29 and she preformed another sonogram. The goo, the gown, lying flat on my back with one exposed breast was now becoming a too familiar and almost automatic procedure for me. She reconfirmed the existence of the abnormal mass and wanted her own radiologist to concur with her findings. “What do you think it is?” I asked her, looking for a ray of hope.  She looked me eye-to-eye with a compassionate stare and said, “I would only be guessing.” This next sonogram was scheduled for Monday, October 10, at the local hospital. Pink ribbons were popping up in TV commercials, products at the store, and on car pumpers. Breast cancer awareness month was well on its way.

I tried not to let this dark cloud over my head affect my daily life. I kept my plans for a getaway weekend with my boyfriend. We climbed over 900 feet to the peak of Seneca Rocks in West Virginia. Over the next 10 days I took my son to soccer practice, installed new carpet in my house and went on a Friday night date. I finally decided to tell my ex-husband and father of my son during a Saturday soccer game. This would affect him and our son as much as me. “Listen,” he says, eyes wide and direct. “It’s nothing. We don’t have that in our families. It’ll be nothing. I’m here for you.” He said it with such conviction that it immediately put me at ease. Meanwhile, the Susan G. Komen walk campaign was in full swing. My friend informed me she was walking up to 17 miles to get ready for her participation in the event. I became aware that I was no longer an outsider to this cause. The steady drum beat was now in my heart.

At the hospital, I am once again in a gown, breast exposed, staring sideways at a screen with various shades of dark and grey as the radiologist measures and clicks at the offending black spot inside the left outline of my breast.  It measures 6mm. “It’s pretty small she declares.” I say. With silent tears rolling down my cheek. “Emphasis on the small, right?” She gives a small laugh, puts a gentle hand on my arm and says. “Go ahead and get dressed. I’ll be right back to talk to you.” As I finish getting dressed she walks back in. “I will send the results to your surgeon.” I’m recommending surgery to remove the mass.” The drums are now pounding in my head.

I meet with my surgeon on the 18th of October. I want this massive 6mm threat out of me ASAP and schedule my surgery. The earliest time is Wednesday, October 26, a day before my son’s 7th birthday and two days before I have to put my sick cat down. I now tell my sister and a handful of close friends what is going on. The support from them is amazing. I see pictures of my friend on Facebook wearing her pink shirt as she chronicles her participation in the Susan G. Komen walk. The following days are a rollercoaster of emotions. I decide to tell the man I’m dating about my surgery expecting a graceful exit from what can very well be unfolding into a complicated relationship for him. He is not only supportive, but offers to accompany me to the hospital.  “We will get through this,” he says. I accept his offer.

The day of surgery finally arrives. I have to be at the hospital at 7AM and my caring escort arrives in the darkness of predawn. At the hospital, I am admitted as a patient and given an ID bracelet. We are escorted to the pre-op room. I change into a hospital gown and begin the preparation for surgery. I am instructed to write the word ‘Yes” with a marker on my left breast to eliminate any error. I’d rather write “No”. Nurses take my vitals, insert an IV and explain the procedure. I talk to the anesthesiologist, who scolds me after she asks if I’ve ever been put under and I reply, “Yes. Once, with the same thing Michael Jackson used. The ‘milk’.”  “That’s inappropriate,” she scolds.  I then jokingly ask her if she is going to use my comment against me in the operating room. She lightens up. My surgeon comes in and walks me through the procedure. Soon after, I get wheeled into the operating room. Three minutes later I am out.

I find myself being woken up by a nurse and I get wheeled back to my recovery room. My boyfriend is waiting as attentive as always. The 6mm threat is now in pathology. Except for the dread of the results, my experience has actually been pleasant. I realize that the network of radiologists, doctors, nurses, anesthesiologist, and surgeon have all been women with the best bedside manner I’ve ever experienced. They have made this scary process seamless and easy.

I am told that I will not get results for at least three days.  I have a planned getaway weekend to New York and want to enjoy it before I deal with any bad news. I hope not to hear anything until Monday.

It’s 4PM on Friday. I’m packing for my trip when my phone rings. It’s my surgeon. I get the impulse to hang up on her. “No news ‘til Monday!” Instead I try to sound upbeat in hopes that my happy tone will translate into good news.  “Hello doctor.” “I have the results,” she says. My heart begins to pound. “It’s benign.”  “It is!” I ask in surprise. I know she gave me the medical term for it, but all I heard was “benign”.  I am elated! I thank her profusely, hang up and immediately begin texting my boyfriend, sister and friends with the good news. I call my ex-husband. He sounds as confident as before. “I told you it was nothing. I’m happy for you.” My New York weekend is now a celebration getaway.

The drums have not stopped beating though. I am now acutely aware of the true meaning behind the pink ribbons. I admire and pray for those women and their families who have had to face the fight against cancer.  For the rest of my life, the month of October and the color pink will have a significant and deeper meaning in my life. 

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