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My Breast

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“I figured you might be worrying, and I was just wondering if you had any questions,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Trick question. Damn, these mothers are smart. I tell her there is a small possibility “it” may be in the lymph nodes, but if it is, it’s not the end of the road. I say because I am concerned another lump might one day be missed, I am leaning toward mastectomy and reconstruction, but that might not be so bad—it would be fun to be able to wear cute little camisoles, and maybe, at 43, I could use a perkier pair.

She’s scared. I can tell because she hits me with Second-Generation Wadler Cure-All One:

“You know, money is not an issue.”

“I know that, Ma,” I tell her. “It’s okay. I got insurance.”

“New underwear, anything cosmetic, that’s on me,” she says.

“Well, I don’t know, Ma,” I say. “My bras are very expensive. I don’t know if a poor old widow like you can afford them.”

“Thirty-four B is a good size,” she says. “I’ll bring cash. I’ll put a thousand in your account.” She starts upping the amount, bargaining with some unseen force. “Three. No, five. Six. For the things that aren’t covered by insurance. Taxis for back and forth to the hospital. New underwear. A wig.” I’m suddenly peeved.

“What makes you think I’m gonna need a wig?” I ask her. “I didn’t say anything about chemotherapy. I’m healthy. I had cancer. I’m just giving you some remote possibilities, because you asked. Anyway, that stuff about chemotherapy has changed—not everybody loses their hair.”

“A blonde one,” she says. “On me.”

‘You know how we’re always saying we miss things,’ I say to Herb. ‘Paris in the twenties. I had tickets to Woodstock, but too much mud. But for this trend, I’m right on time.’

This is another strange thing about breast cancer: Though I have just been told I have a life-threatening disease, it’s not like a cold or the flu, where you feel sick. Physically, the day after the biopsy, I feel as strong as I’ve ever been. My breast aches, but only mildly, and I can take care of it with the Tylenol. I can’t see the cut on my breast when I take off the cotton pads, because it’s covered with a row of fancy bandages, but my left breast, despite the amount of tissue that’s been removed, looks the same size as the right, and somehow I knew it would. Medically, however, we’re all still very confused. Herb is having trouble finding Dr. Love’s book; NIH doesn’t know of any medullary experts. Also, we don’t understand why you would do a mastectomy at the same time as the lymph-node surgery. If the lymph-node surgery is to see if the cancer has spread, wouldn’t you do that first? If it has spread, why take off a breast?

I go back to Barnes & Noble. They don’t have Dr. Love’s book, either, but they do have my old pal, Breast Cancer, Conservative and Reconstructive Surgery. I plunk down the $129 and get it. I also pick up The Pill Book: The Illustrated Guide to the Most Prescribed Drugs in the United States, one or two paperbacks on breast cancer, and a book by Norman Cousins, the former editor of Saturday Review magazine: Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit. I remember hearing about Cousins’s work a few years ago; he had a serious illness and cured himself by laughing. Thursday evening, before going to Luke’s. I start reading the medical books. What they say is a lot stronger than what Luke has said:

Cancers are classified in stages, depending on size, whether they are in the nodes, and whether they have spread to other parts of the body. There are four stages and stage two is not that great: According to one study, the five-year survival rate is 65 percent. Medullary is rare, accounting for perhaps 7 percent of breast cancers, but it can spread, and if it does, it can kill you. The worst kind of breast cancer, accounting for perhaps 2 percent, is inflammatory. The skin is flushed and has a peau d’orange texture—exactly what I saw the day my lump was discovered. Very few people live beyond five years with inflammatory cancer. I am petrified. I don’t care that the lab reports have classified my cancer as medullary. What if they made a mistake? And even if it’s only medullary, these statistics are hell. I call up Nick, convinced I am doomed. “You’re driving yourself crazy,” he says. “What do you care what some book says? Maybe it’s out of date. Your doctor says you have the best kind.” I am not interested in anything Nick has to say. I just want to be next to him in bed and hold on to him.


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