Sunday, August 24, 2014

Exit. Stage Three.

I kept staring at my left breast with disbelief.  No way could there be anything wrong with it.  I kept rationalizing what I was observing.  Telling myself, you are very top heavy.  Breasts are not going to look symmetrical.  No, it's not thicker than the other.  That's some optical illusion.  Besides, I reasoned,  your best friend and your mother died of cancer within six months of each other, as if that were some magical Get Out of Jail Free card.

When I went in for a mammogram, the technician wasn't even  certain my left breast would fit the machine.  She left the room to consult with her supervisor. She returned and she immediately apologized for having to hurt me. She didn't.

The ultrasound technician returned with the radiologist.  They were perplexed by what they saw.  Fluid.  Looked like a cyst.  I felt smug.  Not cancer.  A cyst.  Ha! I  was sure the aspirated cyst would show nothing but pus.  All the worrywarts including my primary care physician could go jump.  The nurse said 75% of these cysts turned up benign.  That meant 25%  weren't benign.  I began to wonder, what if this cyst were cancerous.  Nah.  I was going to be one of the 75%.

The doctor remarked to the ultrasound technician that the fluid did not look right.  I tried to ask her what she meant, but maybe she didn't hear me. Why didn't it look more like pus, I wondered.

"How am I supposed to feel," I shouted into my cellphone at my primary care physician as  I navigated traffic on the way to a second biopsy.  I had spent that weekend in a rage.  Atypical cells.  Happy Mother's Day to me.  Bitter did not begin to cover it.

The doctor spoke to me as she did the second biopsy. I asked  her where she was from.  We chatted amiably as she injected needles  into me to take more samples.  Could have been a conversation over sandwiches at a nearby restaurant.

The news or, rather, verdict, came back quickly.  Grade three invasive ductal carcinoma.  Still sounds like an old fashioned dance to me.  Something from the 40s.   Men and women dancing together on a ballroom floor while a woman singer backed by a seven piece orchestra cheerily  sings "Doing the carcinoma.  Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah."

Took a while for me to realize that grade three was serious in and of itself, even after I started telling people about it.  Then I looked it up.  That's when I understood that, at the very least, the cancer had spread throughout my left breast.

"I won't hold it against you," I told the surgeon, when I saw he was wearing a White Sox pin. My mock disdain was as much about him being Southside Irish as it was about him being a Sox fan.  Afterall, I was married to Northside Irish.  I had to display some loyalty.

He good naturedly oversaw the  resident who did the skin punch biopsy and then sewed up the small hole she had left in my breast.  Made me feel good to know I was at a teaching hospital, and I liked the surgeon's easy manner with his student.  `As I drove away from the hospital, I thought, if I were to need surgery, then I would be in good hands.

"You have inflammatory breast cancer," the oncologist told me.  She went on to explain to me that this form of breast cancer was very aggressive. There is no Stage One.  There is no Stage Two.  My breast cancer starts at Stage Three. She told me that I'd either have six rounds of chemo once every three weeks or chemo once every two weeks depending on what the MRI, bone scan, and CT scan showed.

I left her office feeling numb.  I was almost certain scans would show that the cancer had metastasized.  Stage four, she had explained, was treatable like a chronic illness.  Stage three, however, was curable.  Made me wonder if this was something I'd have to live with for the rest of my life, or  if I'd be able to be declared cancer free after five years.   Five years was going to be long enough to wait and wonder.  I didn't want to think about worse.

"Your breasts won't fit," the MRI technician explained to me.  I didn't need her to tell me that.  I could see it for myself.  She went to call the oncologist to see what she wanted me to do.  I got dressed and sat in the waiting area.  I was 44I to begin with, and cancer breast, as I had dubbed it, had gotten that much larger. On one hand I was relieved because this was a closed machine, and I am claustrophobic.  On the other hand it felt like insult to injury.  After a while the technician told me to just go home.

I sat in my car and cried.  The purpose of the MRI was to see if the cancer had spread to my other breast.  The technician was a nice woman, but I felt humiliated all the same.  Then a pleasantly dark thought entered my mind.  I smiled.  "Break out the rusty saw."   Gonna have a mastectomy anyway so why not?  I laughed and drove home.

I paced about on our front porch while trying to digest what the oncologist was telling me. She told me that aside from a tiny spot in the middle of my spine and a tiny spot on my right lung, she considered me still Stage Three.  I could hardly believe it.  I felt like I was going to collapse on the ground out of relief and gratitude.  Main thing I knew was that I was gonna live.

I went grocery shopping.  I ate free samples.  I felt like I was on top of the world. Who knew one would feel grateful having Stage Three cancer?  But I did.  Not just treatable but survivable.  I had an aggressive form of breast cancer that began at Stage Three and thankfully ended at Stage Three.  While I wished  I didn't have cancer in the first place, I was grateful all the same.    I knew it was only a matter of time before my cancer would make like Snagglepuss and exit. Neither to the right nor to the left but... Exit.  Stage Three.