Breast Cancer Diagnosis: The Prequel

Posted on: March 29th, 2012 by

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.

More lidocaine. 

More drilling.

More pain. 

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.

21 Responses to Breast Cancer Diagnosis: The Prequel

  1. Cynthia Morris had this to say about that:

    This is intense! I felt right there with you. I’m so glad this is in the past for you.

    Did writing about it feel therapeutic or helpful for you?

    You’re so brave, Beth.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Cynthia, for your support. This piece had to be written. It was on my mind for some time. Writing this one was very cathartic, indeed. The experience was horrific and in writing about it, I got to release that experience and get through it.

      I appreciate your comment, and I, too, am glad it’s in the past. Thank you for calling me brave. I think I was just scared and just showed up for the test because what choice did I have?

  2. AnneMarie had this to say about that:


    The words, “I’m not surprised, but I’m stunned” tell the whole story. I’m going out on a limb here but I think very few people can read that statement and nod in agreement. I too, expected the diagnosis. Actually hearing it? Stunned.

    I think I love your kind surgeon, too. For hearing a commotion, for stepping in, for taking such good care of you. The radiologist? Not so much.


    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Yes, my surgeon was very kind. Prior to this experience I thought he was rather methodical and cold. This experience solidified our relationship, and I will always be grateful for his kindness and humanity.

      I agree that very few people would get the not being surprised and being stunned at the same time.

      Yeah, the radiologist sucked.

  3. had this to say about that:

    Oh, Beth,
    I’m sorry you had this inhumane experience. Discovering we have breast cancer is never easy, but physical torture shouldn’t be a part of the diagnosis. You write so well. I know your book will be riveting and comforting all at the same time.


    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your high compliment about my writing and my book. I do help my book will help others.

      And I agree, physical torture shouldn’t be a part of this diagnosis period, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m so glad my surgeon picked up the pieces.

  4. Marie had this to say about that:

    Seems like I am not alone in finding this post viscerally very real Beth!

  5. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Hi Marie!

    Yes, unfortunately it was all too real.



  6. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Beth, Good heavens, your experience sounds absolutely horrendous. Thank goodness your surgeon appeared “out of no where” at that moment and took over the situation. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to go to work that Friday, no wonder you ended up sobbing. Who wouldn’t? Thank you for sharing this personal and painful experience.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Nancy, yes it was pretty horrendous. I kept working through that week, and actually, it was really healing to be able to be kept busy.

      Thank you for your compassion.

  7. The Accidental Amazon had this to say about that:

    Oh, dear one, like it’s not horrifying enough to find out you have cancer, but it has to be preceded by this appallingly crude failed biopsy. Where did that nimrod of a radiologist go to med school? Any flipping idiot with a quarter of a brain knows that you have to WAIT for the lidocaine to take affect. You never just shoot & cut. Dear god in heaven…she must have been absent the day they covered that in class. #topicalanaestheticsarenotinstantanaesthetics

    Also, #justbecauseiamadoctordoesnotmeanihaveaclue

    There is no good way to get the News. Sigh.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Kathi, you are so right about the radiologist. Why they didn’t wait for the lidocaine to take effect, I’ll never figure out. It’s frightening enough to go ahead with the procedure, but being in pain and not being believed is simply cruel. I know you have had your share of pain as well.

      You are right: there’s no good way to get the news.

  8. codyg had this to say about that:

    Beth I to had the same experience. I literally jumped up off the table! I have never felt such pain in my life. The doc doing the biopsy knew he hurt me too, guy had tears in his eyes. I don’t know who or what felt worse, him, me or my boob. Needless to say, they then renumbed me and got the job done but I was literally terrified.
    Take Care

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Deb, your experience certainly seems like a nightmare. I’m so sorry you had to endure such a rough biopsy experience. I can totally understand why you were terrified. I was also.

  9. codyg had this to say about that:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Jan Baird Hasak had this to say about that:

    What an ordeal, Beth! I know what you mean about work being healing with its power of distraction. I’m so sorry about the physical torture they put you through. Something else that spoke volumes to me was your repeated use of the term “then-husband.” Been there…done that…and don’t want the t-shirt. Thanks for giving your readers a real taste of real breast cancer, not the taste that celebrities want everyone to experience. XXX

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Jan, yes, “then-husband” is the operative word here. My marriage was never a good one, but cancer ended it for good. I decided that life was too short to be miserable forever. Glad he’s my ex.

      You are right about what celebrities want the public to know. That’s part of a major problem in our society — the image of celebrities who have “triumphed” over the disease. The real cancer is agonizing torture.

  11. Dianne Duffy had this to say about that:

    Did you know that red-heads take twice as much anesthesia as other people? I have similar experiences all the time…

  12. Liz had this to say about that:

    A very powerful piece, Beth – what a ghastly experience for you. My key memory of the biopsy process was having the staple gun-like machine that was going to be used ‘fired’ in front of me several time prior to the procedure so that I’d be prepared for the horrible sound it was going to make. This journey really is full of nighmarish moments, isn’t it? Your book sounds like it will be terrific – I look forward to more.

  13. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Oh my gosh, Liz! Your experience sounds hellish to say the least. What you went through is torture. You are right about this journey being “full of nightmarish moments.”

    Thank you for your kind words about my posting and about the book. I am finished with the book and seeking agents and publishers.

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