I go to work and forget about it. Then, in the afternoon, my breast starts to ache. I remember People has a staff doctor and call him. I feel a little silly about this; I am sure it is nothing, but I figure a doctor is right there in the building, so why not? He doesn’t seem worried, either, until he examines me. Then his face tightens up. In the bright light of the examining room, where there is a small mirror, I see why: There is a pink flush on my breast over the lump, as if there is an inflammation, which I did not see at home. There is definitely something there, the doctor says. What it is he cannot say, but he thinks I should see a specialist. If I like, he’ll be glad “to expedite it.” I tell him I’m planning to go to Guttman next week. “I think it would be better if you saw somebody sooner than that,” he says.
I burst into tears.
Boy, I think, I really must be strung tight today, and to him, though he hasn’t mentioned the word that is now as much a presence in the room as another human being, I say, “Sorry. My father died last year of cancer.”
He makes a call. An hour later, I am outside the Time-Life Building, hailing a cab for the Upper East Side offices of a surgeon we’ll call Luke. I am scared. Before I leave his office, the doctor asks if I will have health coverage during my leave, and that has added to my feeling that this is serious. I am now flip-flopping between telling myself I am overreacting and a giddy hysteria. Standing on Sixth Avenue, I have turned into Zorba the Greek. I want to live. The things I haven’t done flash before me, a long list of “But wait, I wanna. . . .” But wait, I wanna finish my book; but wait, I wanna get married; but wait, I wanna make some money and take Nick to Paris to meet my friends; but wait, I’m just getting started. . . . I think about Nick and the time we’ve wasted fighting and make a deal with myself: If everything’s okay, I won’t worry about monogamy; I won’t hok him about moving in; I will make the most of every moment. As unwittingly as Newton discovered gravity, I have stumbled upon the key to making me the dream girl of every uncommitting man in Manhattan: breast cancer.
Formerly, I thought of my body as indivisible. Now that my breasts have shown the ability to destroy me, perhaps they deserve not only separate but higher billing.
In the doctor’s office, there are a dozen women. They seem older than I, and oddly, they all look alike. They look like a truck ran over their faces, I find myself thinking, which I know, as soon as it crosses my mind, is an ugly thought and not correct. Then I realize what I am looking at: fear. I have never seen so much of it sitting together. It’s a good thing there’s nothing wrong with me, I think. Then, as I have a wait, I go for a walk. I have already called Herb, but now I find I want to talk to Nick too. He tells me it is probably nothing and is very sweet.
“Just tell me what you want me to do, baby,” he says.
The doctor, when I get in to see him, is my age, a good listener, with the kind of Waspy calm I like to see in airline pilots and other people to whom I am entrusting my life. Speaking to him, I remember something: In the past few months, in addition to soreness before my period, my breasts have been sore afterward—so much that it was uncomfortable if Nick rested his head on my chest, and I wondered if I had had a false period and was pregnant. Though I had called my gynecologist’s office and asked a nurse if that was possible, it never occurred to me to make an appointment and have the doctor check my breasts—she had examined them four months before.
Now Luke examines me.
“I don’t think this is anything to worry about,” he says, and I feel relief rushing over me like a warm bath. “Malignancies tend to be hard, almost stony. You can’t manipulate them. This you can. I’m 98 percent sure this is not malignant.”
What he believes I have, Luke says, is an inflammation of some sort, perhaps a cyst. To find out, he would like to aspirate the lump: take out some liquid with a hypodermic, and send it to be analyzed. It’s a painless procedure; all I’ll feel is a needle prick. When a cyst is aspirated, a lot of liquid usually comes out, generally clear. It is painless, but it doesn’t go as planned.