I have WHAT? Part 1 – Discovery
Mid-December 2003. Hot shower on a cold day, steam filling the shower stall – I felt it. A lump about as long as my thumb and twice as wide in my left breast. Terror.
I sat with that for a while, reminding myself that most of the lumps that women find by themselves are anatomic structures within normal limits. After a week or so, I decided to face my fears and go to my GP. It was only a few days until the appointment, but it felt like forever. My fingers kept straying to the lump, feeling its edges, comparing with my right breast in the vain hope of finding a similar lump there. (That would mean it was anatomic and not cancer.)
Appointment with my GP. He confirmed that it was not a normal finding and sent me to my first mammography. I went, still hoping that everyone would laugh at my silly fears, that there was nothing wrong, that I would feel sheepish but healthy. The mammo technician told me to take a seat in the hallway (not the waiting room) as she brought the films to the radiologist. A minute or two later, he called me in for an ultrasound.
The doctor performed the exam, and it seemed to me that he was taking an especially long time. I saw him taking measurements, capturing screen shots. The exam over, he looked at me gravely and sighed. “We’ll have to do a biopsy.” I took a deep breath and asked The Question, using The Word for the first time. “Is it cancer?” “We’ll have to do a biopsy.” “But what do you think?” “I can’t say anything without a biopsy.” He looked so grave. Recalling what little I knew of ultrasound images of tumors, I asked, “Can you tell me – are the edges of the lesion regular?” “No.”
If I hadn’t been supine I would probably have fainted. He told me that they would hold on to the films (usually we receive them and take them with us to other consultations) and he walked me out to the reception desk, where he told them to make an appointment for the biopsy.
I felt like I had been kidnapped. Already, I felt that my autonomy was being diminished and that my choices were being taken away from me. These feelings would continue during the first years of my life with cancer.
At the time I was living in an intentional community based on religious principles. I didn’t feel that I could go home yet, but I didn’t want to be alone. I went to see my priest at his home. He let me in, knowing nothing of what was going on. He seated me at the dining room table, asked if I wanted something to drink.
He sat across from me. “I have breast cancer.” His face dropped, his eyes widened. He said nothing, but I felt that he was very present to me. “We have to wait for the biopsy, but there is not much doubt.” He remained silent, and so did I. We sat there, and I started to cry silently. “I can’t do this,” I said.
A powerful read.
Thank you, Laura. 🙂
I cannot believe the lack of empathy you received! Your feeling of being stripped of choices and alienated as a person would be as debilitating as the physical journey you were about to encounter.
Blessings and prayers
Very riveting to read, and it really reminded me of what happened to me before diagnosis. I asked my surgeon “What if it’s cancer?” and he said, “We have to do the biopsy first.” He knew. So did I.
Yes, the biopsy really is necessary for a definitive diagosis, and I guess they are–quite rightly–concerned about terrifying someone unnecessarily.
Thanks for your kind words, Beth.
This is powerful and so well describes the shock of knowing.
I do assessment in my field. Sometimes I have a strong diagnostic impression early on. Parents are understandably worried and sometimes they ask me what I think before I’ve finished the assessment. The issues I assess are not hidden, however, coming totally out of the blue. Parents know that SOMETHING is probably wrong. If I have a strong impression, I say, “You are reporting a lot of symptoms of X. I think it is really good that we are doing this assessment.”
I don’t jump to the end, though. Sometimes the complete data convinces me otherwise. I have to trust the assessment process. I also have to give myself enough time to develop a treatment plan. I know it means putting worried families in the dark for a longer amount of time. But I do believe it is the most responsible course of action.
Yes, of course, it would not be responsible to make a diagnosis before the work-up was done. However, it would be possible to say, “It may be cancer. The biopsy will tell us for sure.” That’s all I was looking for.
But in the case of the ultrasound radiologist, his soft eyes told me all.
I agree, he certainly could have said that. I’m so glad you are done with that doctor, and hope like you that his heart has grown in the intervening years.