I enter the hospital for a stereotactic core biopsy on a suspicious mass in my right breast.
I leave the hospital having had a different kind of biopsy and an unofficial-but-pretty-certain diagnosis of cancer, the prequel to the official diagnosis two days later.
At the Core of the Matter
I am naked in my gown and am ushered into a cold room where I see a table with a hole in it. The hole is for my right breast. As I lay on my stomach, a nurse helps position my breast in the hole. The radiologist will be drilling into my breast to get a sample from the suspicious mass. Lidocaine is injected into my breast to numb it.
Enter the radiologist. Pardon me for stereotyping, but she doesn’t look the part. She’s a glam fashionista, wearing a beautiful dress and no doctor’s outfit. I want to scream that this is a mistake, that this test is a mistake, that the mass identified in the diagnostic mammogram is a mistake.
But it’s real.
She starts drilling away, and I feel pain. A lot of pain. And I tell her so. She seems surprised.
More lidocaine is injected into my breast. Oh joy.
She starts drilling again, and I still feel lots of pain. And I tell her so. She seems surprised. She asks me if I am sure I’m in pain.
Uh…uh huh. YES, I am in PAIN, I tell her.
Finally, the doctor tells me it is unethical to continue with the procedure (er the drilling) with me in so much pain, and I’ve been maxed out on the lidocaine. In a blaming tone, she tells me I have to schedule a surgical biopsy. Then she abruptly leaves.
The staff slowly sits me up, and I make a mistake. I look down at my breast. There’s a hole with blood pooling in it. It looks like a bullet hole.
I feel my eyes roll back and feel faint and nauseated. I almost pass out. Nurses scurry around me and lay me down on the table. They take my vitals and are concerned.
After what seems like forever some time has passed, a nurse puts a bandage on my gaping hole. The nursing staff is trying to schedule me for a surgical biopsy. I say I want to speak to my surgeon about it, and they say he never is in this area of the hospital on Wednesdays.
Just as they utter this, my surgeon appears. Out of nowhere. He has heard the elevated voices and wants to know what is wrong. They tell him about the failed biopsy attempts.
I feel like a failure.
The surgeon takes me and my then-husband into an examination room and closes the door. He tells me to sit on the examination table. I’m emotionally better and believe I don’t have cancer. This is all a joke. I expect the surgeon to have reassuring words.
He says, “Forget about scheduling a surgical biopsy. I will do the biopsy myself. Now.”
With my mind still reeling, I say, “But don’t I need to schedule the surgery?”
He then says, “You don’t understand. I can tell from your mammogram that this is probably cancer. I’m doing the biopsy now.”
At this point, I physically feel the examination table going through the floor. I feel like I’m dropping into an abyss, and I am — an abyss of terror.
The surgeon ushers my then-husband out of the room, and appears with a gaggle of nurses and assistants. They gently lay me down. He grips the scalpel, which I am not afraid of. After drilling, cut-by-scalpel seems pretty easy.
By now my breast is good and numb. As he is performing the biopsy, I whimper, “I don’t want it to be cancer.” But I know what I’m doing. I’m begging the doctor to tell me I’ll be just fine. That I really don’t have cancer.
But he can’t say this.
However, he shows his humanity by saying, “I don’t want it to be cancer either.” Nurses are massaging my legs and holding my hand as he takes his sample.
Then he gently removes the bandage over the gaping hole and says aloud to himself, “I wonder if the breast is numb enough for me to stitch up that hole.”
Wanting him to stitch it up really badly and tapping into my inner courage, I hear myself say, “Well, there’s only one way to find out.”
He immediately sews it up, and I feel no pain.
That night, I start making the phone calls telling people I probably have cancer. It gives me a head start. On Friday, my surgeon calls me at work confirming I do have breast cancer.
I’m not surprised, but I’m stunned.
He asks me if I want to come to the office to see him, but I tell him I’m at work and have a writing deadline to meet. After I calmly announce to my co-workers that I have cancer, I go back to writing. I don’t react at all.
An hour later, my co-workers scurry around me, holding me tightly, for I am sobbing.
The reality has finally sunk in.