“We had to tie his hands to the bed because he already pulled the tube out of his nose once,” one of the doctors said. “He’s a little out of it now because we sedated him.”
He was on the machine for two months. A few days into it, they gave him a tracheotomy so he would be more comfortable, but he could never again speak. I knew it was his life and going on the machines had been his decision, but I never changed my mind about it. I thought he would have been better off dead.
I do not, however, dwell on that memory the week of the scare. I trust Dr. Luke, and I know he’s good—a friend was a patient; his reputation is excellent. I do mention the lump to my mother, who is in Florida for the winter, but I tell her I don’t think it’s serious, and I believe it.
That changes a little on Thursday when I talk to Luke about the test results. He tells me, in a tone indicating there is nothing to be concerned about, the results are pretty much what he expected, though there are “a number of atypical cells which could be consistent with an inflammation.”
My old reporter’s bell goes off.
“What do you mean atypical?” I ask. “How many cells?”
He seems a bit irritated, as if I’m worrying for no reason.
“A number,” he says. “But that could happen with an infection. Keep taking the penicillin and come in in ten days, and we’ll see what to do then.”
The next week, I start my leave. Though People and I have our problems, they have been extraordinarily good to me. This is my third leave; it includes health benefits. I am perhaps 80 pages away from finishing the book, and it is a wonderful section. My 24-year-old assistant, Stefan, back in Paris, has cornered a particularly evasive source. The story is reaching its climax: My hero, Bernard, a member of the French Foreign Service, has been charged with espionage and made the terrible discovery that the woman for whom he became a spy is a man.
I do fear death. Even more, I fear a bad death, strapped to machines in a hospital like my father. ‘Joyce,’ he told me, ‘your father is a very sick man. Your father is dying.’
The only thing is, I am distracted by this thing in my chest. It’s so sore I cannot sleep on my stomach. The penicillin doesn’t seem to be doing much after ten days. There is a very bright light in my gym locker room, and I see how vivid and delineated the area around the lump still is.
“I’m starting to feel this thing has a life of its own,” I tell Herb one night, as he’s stretched out on the couch. “Like it’s gonna come flying out of my body any minute, like that thing in Alien, and run around the living room and put on a sports channel and tell me to get it a beer.”
I decide it’s time for independent research and pull out my medical reference books. My old standby, the AMA Family Medical Guide, is not very comforting: It defines “breast abscess” as a pus-filled infected area but says that it is uncommon and usually affects women who are breast-feeding. It says, starting to make me nervous, that a cancerous lump “may or may not be painful,” occurs most often in women in their forties and fifties, and is “slightly more common in women who have never breast-fed a baby.” The only good news is it is also “slightly more common” in women whose families have a history of the disease. The Professional Guide to Diseases is worse. It adds white middle- and upper-class women to the higher-risk list, as well as those “who are under constant stress or undergo unusual disturbances in their home or work lives.”
Eleven days after the discovery of the lump, I go back to see Dr. Luke. He examines my breast and in less than a minute makes a decision.
“This has to come out,” he says.
I am not scared now—I am relieved. I don’t think it’s cancer—I’m too healthy for cancer—I just want this thing out of my body, the sooner the better. I’d be happy if Luke could do it right now in the office. He says that’s out of the question. It will be done with a local anesthetic at a hospital and will take maybe half an hour. I ask if I can watch: I saw breast surgery when I did a story on a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, and I also hung out for a month at the New York City morgue, so I figure I won’t be squeamish. Luke says he’ll be glad to explain as he cuts but that most people do not want to watch when theirs is the body involved. I decide he’s right.