A Breast Cancer primer - hearing the news

On the Wednesday after my biopsy, my daughter and I were on the way out the door to our part-time jobs at a local library when the phone rang. It was just about 4:30 p.m. because our starting time is 5 p.m. and I knew that we would be late if we didn't leave immediately.

I don't know what made me pick up the phone that particular time, on that particular day. I hardly ever answer the phone anymore because I have a teenager who excels at that job. I just happened to be closer to the phone than she, so I heard the doctor's voice first.

The conversation went something like this. A quiet, kind, compassionate voice said, "Hello, this is Dr. so and so, may I speak with Dora?" I suddenly remembered why this doctor would be calling me. I identified myself, he asked me how I was, and then there was a short pause before he asked me the rhetorical question that only ever means it will be followed by bad news, "Do you have a few minutes to talk?"

I immediately reacted with a sinking feeling, physically and emotionally. I think I might have swooned. I've always wanted to swoon, but I had hoped it would be from meeting someone worth swooning over, like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Sting, or Elton John. I sat down for what I knew would be the worst conversation of my life thus far. While my mind knew that it needed to give the doctor my full attention, my heart wanted to reply, "No, I don't have the time." But, time simply stood still for me from that moment until I became aware that my daughter was standing in the doorway watching me on the phone. I tried to react in a way that wouldn't alarm her, but being the epitome of someone who wears emotions on her sleeve, there was no way I could hide my feelings about what I was hearing. I could tell from my daughter's face that she knew it was bad news too, and I wanted to cry for her. I remember the doctor said the word "unfortunately," he used the phrase "bad cells," and suggested that I come into his office to speak with him the next day.

When I got off the phone, I remembered that we were about to be late for work. I thought if only I hadn't answered the phone, I could have at least made it through a shift. I called work, told my coworker through tears that I'd be a blithering idiot if I came in, and she, wise woman that she is, told me to not worry about reporting for work.

The next morning my fiancé and I went to the doctor's office. Since the doctor hadn't said the word cancer or tumor on the phone, I was still hoping these bad cells were some pre-cancerous condition. My doctor is one of the kindest persons I've ever met and he's pretty humble to boot. He first apologized for telling me the news on the phone and that he felt bad for me. He explained that I have some cancer inside one duct, which he referred to as intraductile cells, and also a very small spot of malignant cells outside of the duct in question.

He said that the cancer was producing the tiny calcifications found in my mammogram. The doctor showed me the spots on the x-ray and I thought what an amazing pair of eyes that radiologist must have to notice such small spots. They looked no different to me than everything else on the x-ray. The good news, hopefully, is that the cells have been detected relatively early. They weren't there in the previous mammogram 16 months earlier. The doctor drew pictures for me, answered all my questions, and never made me feel that I was asking stupid questions, or taking up his valuable time. He recommended a lumpectomy, a procedure much less invasive than the masectomies regularly performed years ago for all tumors, big or small. The doctor will make a small incision, remove the cancerous tissue from my breast along with a lymph node or two, and biopsy that tissue to see how far the cells may have traveled. The results from that biopsy will determine the next step in my recovery.

This morning, two days before my surgery, I had to go to the hospital for some blood work and an EKG. After wiring me to the machine, I told the technician that I couldn't help but think about the scene from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." in which Jack Nicholson receives shock treatment. She said a lot of people tell her that. Just before I left, I asked why the EKG. She said it was routine before surgery to check for any irregularities with my heart, and because I was now beyond the magic age. "Magic age," I joked, "you mean 30?" "No," she replied, "45." That's right, I thought, I'm not as young as I used to be.

To be continued.