I didn’t feel sick or have a sense of impending doom. Then like surprise rain shower on a sunny day, the doctor forms the words, and I realized that I’d just spent my last cancer-free moment .
That was my cancer drive-by. Like all drive-by violence, the damage can vary from a dented fender or a bullet hole in the garage door to a senseless and innocent death. Mine was more like the garage door damage. A little body work covered the scar where my breast has a slight dent and was discolored by radiation.
I had skipped a year on my annual mammogram. Doctor H. discovered that while she was giving me a pre-trip checkup a few days before I was leaving on a week-long canoe trip on the US-Canadian boundary waters (BWCA). My original reason for schedule the appointment was an arthritic left pointer finger that might flare up after days of paddling and portaging. We squeezed the mammo in right after my check up. A day later, my husband and I left for Ely, Minnesota to spend Labor Day week 2013 without beds, showers, toilets, dry clothes, or wine. I was so apprehensive about how I would handle no toilets, I watched a YouTube tutorial on how to use a boundary waters latrine. I didn’t even give a thought to the mammo.
Eight of us flew from Houston’s Hobby airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, with a connection in Midway where we picked up another three crew members. We would meet two more in Ely at the Canada Boundary Outfitters. Most of us were parents of boys who had earned their Eagle Scout badges at Troop 211. During their years in the troop, we’d driven for camp outs, towed the 5,000 pound patrol trailer, repaired tents, chaperoned summer camps, and shared a love of outdoors as we watched our boys become men. We parents and scout leaders were called the Comanche patrol.
Learn how I fared on the canoe trip here.
I’d spent six glorious days on the water, in the wilderness and without my cellphone. When we returned to the outfitter’s dock, I wanted to extend the vacation a little longer so i refused to turn on my phone. We celebrated our canoe adventure survival with a crew dinner at the Grand Ely lodge. We had eaten very well on the trek thanks to Jim Russell’s love of camp out cooking. He had freeze dried everything, down to sriracha sauce. But even with Jim’s wilderness cooking skills, we were all still hungry for what we were couldn’t dehydrate. Red wine, cocktails, fresh salad with chunky blue cheese dressing, fried fish, cloth napkins, and limitless fresh-tasting water. While on the lake, we had to plan ahead to purify adequate drinking and cooking water. The water always had a little bit of an off taste.
It was at the Grand Ely lodge that my phone caught a cell tower and started down loading all the messages I had missed during the days on the water. Kelsey-Seybold clinic had left six messages. I began to suspect those messages are not billing questions or an “everything looks good” call back from Dr. H. Here in Minnesota, sitting at a long table with my canoe crew, freshly showered, fed and slightly buzzed, I refused to give up my last night here to any disturbing news from back home. I would listen to the messages in the van back to the airport tomorrow.
If Kelsey had gotten through to me on the first call, I would not have been too worried. About twenty years ago, I had a questionable mammogram and was seen by an oncologist every six months for a couple of years. Calcifications can be cancer markers and I had them throughout both breasts but the calcifications never changed locations, size or appeared to be massing together for criminal purposes. Maybe these common, pepper-like grains were causing Kelsey-Seybold to do another check as I got older. The six additional messages from Kelsey-Seybold clinicians and nurses trying to catch me to schedule another look did raise an alarm in my brain but I could not talk to anyone there until Monday morning, two days from now. Ahead was four-hour drive in the back seat of the van and another long snooze while the rest of the crew shared funny stories from our boundary waters trip and others they had taken. I would enjoy every minute of being away from home.
“I could really have cancer.” That was my first thought after I connected with Kelsey-Seybold on Monday morning and was told to come in early that next morning for an ultrasound scan of the suspect area. I had developed this website a few months before but was inconsistent in posting regularly so I figured it would be a good time to start writing something on the canoe trip while the memories were still vivid. I sat in the radiology waiting room, with the other women who were trying to stay warm, wearing the gown that all women know “opens to the front.” The wait was lengthy which was unusual for Kelsey so I had lots of time to relive and write about our canoe trip. In the periphery, I heard a few of the other women talking about “their cancer” as if were an unruly dependent, like a troublesome cat who hung its ass outside of the litter box. Some were in the middle of treatment, others had been diagnosed and were waiting to see how they would tackle their malignancy. One woman who was black and in her late 60’s was down the road with her treatment. I do not remember what she said to the woman next to her but the black woman radiated a calmness that confused me since she HAD CANCER!
When I was called for my ultrasound, I knew the drill but this felt different from the other times I had been on that table. For one thing, the nurse laid her hand on my knee in a gesture of comfort. The technician told me “good luck” after it was over. “I could really have cancer,” slipped into my consciousness every so often for the rest of the day. That night, when I tried to go to sleep, the blip became a an on-going buzz. “I could really have cancer. This could be one of my last cancer-free nights.” Mercifully, I heard back from Kelsey quickly. They needed another test, an ultrasound assisted biopsy. Also, I’d see an oncologist surgeon on the same day just in case.
The visit with the surgeon was done first around 10 o’clock in the morning. He put the ultra sound images on the light box and explained that the jagged edges of a mass the size of a pencil eraser had caught the radiologist’s attention when she reviewed my original mammogram. It also looked like there were some very tiny shadows in my lymph glands that should be checked. “If it turns out to be cancer, what’s the prognosis?” I asked. I could not imagine how many times he had had to answer that question in his career but it was my first time to need an answer so that’s all that mattered to me. “It’s small so prognosis would be really good. If it has not spread into the lymph nodes, then a lumpectomy and some chemo or radiation as insurance against a re-occurrence. You wouldn’t be slowed down much during treatment.” “And if there’s cancer in my lymph glands?” I asked. “Then probably a mastectomy. Definitely, a more extensive surgery so there would be some trauma to some of your muscles in your upper arm. You look like you work out a lot so you would probably have to modify your routine for a couple of months. Again, it is small and it if is cancer, we have it early. You’ll have a great prognosis.”
It was now about 10:45 in the morning. My biopsy was not scheduled until 2:30p. Dr. Mitchell’s nurse hurried things on a bit by telling the radiology department that he needed the test right away. It was rescheduled around 1p so I only had two hours to wait. My house was only 15 minutes from the clinic but I did not want to go there. I drove into the wealthy neighborhood that surrounds Kelsey. West University is upscale but homey, not like Houston’s River Oaks where the old and new money compete to build the biggest mansions on the largest spreads. West U has new homes and old trees. Remaining original houses from the 1930’s are either extensively remodeled or inhabited by old people who don’t want to leave their lifelong home but don’t have much left after their high property taxes. There are a couple of shady pocket parks sprinkled throughout West U where landscape and construction workers take a break at noon. It was a little early for their lunch visits so I took over a bench, looked at my email and called the office. I was working on a project at Univision with Kath Blanco and wanted to check in. I like Kath, her style and her directness, but we were just getting to know each other. Before we got down to business, she asked how my appointment went. “I think I’ve got cancer,” I said and I started to cry. I had not said it aloud to anyone until right then and it felt funny speaking and claiming “my cancer”. Kath did not know what to say. I would not have either if the roles were reversed. I moved the conversation to the project to gain control of my emotions but we both knew I wouldn’t be heavily involved past this point, at least not for the foreseeable future.
At 1 o’clock, I was back on the ultrasound table. The doctor doing the biopsy was someone whose name had appeared on most of my mammogram reports going back a decade. I wondered if she caught it because she is so familiar with everyone’s breast pictures but she must see hundreds if not thousands a year. An ultrasound assisted biopsy grabs a piece of the tumor with a spring loaded needle. Dr. R gave me a little warning right before the needle took a bite. It is a loud, sharp sound and jars you just slightly. A little uncomfortable but not bad. There was a bit of a hard shell around part of the mass and the doctor had to have a second foray in a couple of areas but it was over quickly. Everyone in the ultrasound room but me knew this was a malignancy. You could feel their certainty and their awareness of my dawning intuition.
Dr. Mitchel tried to reach me in the early afternoon on Wednesday. I missed his first two calls because I was out doing a presentation to Walgreens. The preparation for that presentation had allowed me to compartmentalize my health concern for a little while. I called back as soon as I returned to the office and saw the 713-442 prefix which meant a Kelsey call. I was only on hold a few minutes when Dr. Mitchel came on. How many times had he given a woman this news? “I’m sorry but the mass is malignant. Stage one invasive so I recommend we proceed with treatment quickly. There is some good news. It doesn’t look like there is anything to worry about with the lymph nodes.”
I expected to be devastated when the cancer was confirmed but a little of the calmness I had felt emanating from the woman I’d sat by in the radiology waiting room started to seep in. I was going to cry, first alone and then, for a little bit every time I had to tell someone I now had cancer and witness the disbelief and the fear that if it was happening to me, it could happen to them. But now I had firm diagnosis which was the first step towards treatment and recovery. It was time to throw myself into how to navigate this new direction.