I don’t want to be here.
My thoughts are disjointed, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle dumped unceremoniously on the table. I try to sort them; to right the upside down pieces, and even group them by color and pattern. But we are still at the early stages of the puzzle, where few pieces are joined and, instead, there is lots of open white space — a metaphor for the unknown. Because I am incapable of knowing how else to begin, dully I look for the pieces with a straight edge. Logically I know those will eventually form the border, a boundary that separates established patterns from the random dumping. While it seems to be a mess at first, gradually I spot the occasional straight edge, and begin to line them up in order to find connecting pieces. It’s a slow process. It takes a bit to spot what I should be looking for.
Dark spots on my sleep shirt. That’s the first piece. Exactly where the nipple of my right breast brushes against the fabric. This discovery is puzzling at first. It seems so random. A slow realization that the rust colored stains on my hotel bedsheets from several weeks ago must be from this point of contact. Why then and not now? I almost miss it at first, but then I realize. Colored sheets. I nod slowly, and look closer at my bed. I see them now. On the dark forest green sheets, there are bloody discolorations on my side of the bed where my torso rests at night. My mind fits the pieces together, snapping the puzzle piece tab into the neighboring cutout edge.
I try not to panic, and contact my doctor. I play it off that I’m merely concerned, not worried because, you know, blood. Surely there is a reasonable explanation, and see how mature I am with my calm delivery of symptoms? Her response is quick and only marginally comforting. The words swim before my eyes. Ductile hyperplasia. Benign except when it isn’t. Atypical. Pre-cancerous. Surgical excision. I stop reading. My father’s side of the family is rife with cancer. It is the unspoken fear to which I irrationally jump, the one thing I’ve always been convinced will end my life. I think of my friend who died last year, whose breast cancer metastasized and took her from family and friends — at this age, in fact. My mind leapfrogs ahead unbidden, and I have to forcibly wrench it back, to actively think about something else, something nonthreatening. I discover this is not as easy as it sounds.
I look around. Examination rooms are so impersonal, and this is no different than any other exam room. So very antiseptic. Sterile. Cool to the touch. White walls and stainless steel instruments and countertops. A stool for the doctor (the kind that, in younger days, you’d spin around and around and around on when no one was looking until you were a little giddy, if not slightly sick from the revolutions). A side chair for the patient. Of course there’s the examination table that looks more like an awkward naugahyde bed/lounge with no arms and definitely not lounge comfortable, not like mixed drinks and crushed velvet and smoky voiced sirens and lounge lizards in leisure suits. No, this table is more like the elephant in the middle of the room, the one we know is there but don’t necessarily want to acknowledge, because it’s for the sick people. The nurse has already been in to get my vitals and type things in my chart on the screen. Verify current medications. Record my responses to her questions. And with an efficient albeit lukewarm assurance the doctor would be in to see me soon, she is gone again.
I am left to my own devices, playing the waiting game that I’ve already played in the waiting room. Now I’m waiting in the exam room. It only stands to reason I should be examining my wait … at my leisure, of course. Perhaps while lounging.
The doctor walks in and introduces herself. Breast disease specialist. Yes, because that isn’t intimidating in the slightest. I dutifully answer her questions, repeating my responses as I did to the nurse earlier. She hands me a gown and discretely leaves while I change. Somewhere, my subconscious is bemused, as her hands will push, prod, and examine my naked body in a matter of minutes, but for now we pretend my modesty is relevant. I take off my clothes, peeling away the protective layers. My sweater. My shirt. My bra. There is nothing left to hide behind. I put on the ridiculously useless cape and get back on the table to await her return.
The exam is routine, like so many others I’ve had, except this time we know there’s a problem. This time we know something has gone wrong inside, and we are trying to assess the damage within. Arm overhead; palpitate the breast. Other side. Repeat. It’s not as bad as a pelvic exam, actually, but I still mentally wander as she examines my body. I’ve already done this repeatedly; now it’s her turn, her expert opinion, her diagnosis. When we are done, the list of options. First will be imaging. Another mammogram, and an ultrasound to see if there’s something that’s changed from our baseline exams. Then surgery no matter what, either to remove the rogue duct, or to deal with a bigger issue, the unspoken fear that might well morph into my reality. She shakes my hand and departs, leaving me to process.
I consider her dispassionate delivery of my odds; there’s a one in three chance this is pre-cancerous, which means there’s a fully two in three chance it’s benign. I’d rather the odds were much, much smaller, but I stubbornly grab hold of the term. Benign. I will myself to believe this will be my fork in the road, not down the other path wherein lie the other words I fear. I can do this. After all, I’ve kept this information to myself already, contained in a box that’s been buried in the depths of my mental closet. Just get through last week’s conference. Just get through next week’s keynote. Just get through the following three weeks of travel. And so I schedule blood draws and tests, threading them among my current obligations and appointments. Haircut. Mammogram. Pedicure. Packing. Ultrasound. Presentation. Like interlocking pieces of a puzzle.
I can do this.
I wrap myself once again in the layers, reversing the earlier process. My bra. My shirt. My sweater. My flimsy protection against the world. I get back to the car and call TheCop. He already knows my fears, and can tell by my voice that I am shaken. He takes vacation and we spend the afternoon together. In one of those rare moments, he knows exactly what to do and what not to say. We go for food. He gets me a margarita so I can process, and then takes me to a matinee so I can escape. He holds my hand. He gently convinces me I need to tell the kids. I realize I have to be okay with this, because my role now is to manage others’ reactions to this incredibly personal news. I dread this because every retelling means I have to revisit the darkness, take the box out of the closet and open it for others.
I can’t do this.
For the sake of my sanity, I turn to writing. I realize this will open the floodgates, but it also means I only have to tell it once. I hope the followup post will be uneventfully boring, but I can’t be sure, and it seems important to document this. For better or worse. So I ask that you let this live here, on this blog. Post your comments, your love, your encouragement here. I can manage this, and the words are welcome, believe me. But let me have my fiction on the other channels where I dwell; let me pretend on Twitter and Facebook that my life is Robin as usual, because I need to have that outlet of normalcy, even if it is a temporary illusion. At least until we have more pieces of the puzzle in place, and we begin to see what the picture is that we’re assembling.
Let’s do this.