This post is dedicated to Stephanie Green over at Dishalicious. She is a witty woman who at thirty-two has sassed the shit out of breast cancer. Every so often, when I read one of her posts, I do a double snap and exclaim an excited ‘you go girl’. As she goes through the process of conquering cancer, she is documenting everything with the hopes of publishing her story. Sometimes what she shares is downright funny and other times it leaves me speechless. No matter what, her story is one that should be heard. If you are a reader or a writer, an agent or a publisher, please visit her site. You are sure to be inspired.
Every time I go to the dentist he asks if I floss. With his hand crammed in my mouth, he calmly inquires about my routine. And because he’s already in there witnessing the condition of my teeth and gums, I know he already knows the answer. I know he’s only asking so I have to whimper a mumbled confession of guilt. That while I own multiple spools of floss, the last time I used any was when I needed to rig the undercarriage of my car back to the bumper. Don’t ask.
Every time I go to the gynecologist, she asks if I do a self breast exam. With my legs in the stirrups and a metal clamp in my down there, the conversation about pending vacations and favorite restaurants gets back to business. I usually drop my head to the side, the protective paper crinkling beneath the weight of my cheek. I let out a breath as I exhale my answer, a simple no. That my breasts always feel different, sometimes mushy other times less so and for the most part I just forget to do it. This is when she peers around my elevated leg and shoots a motherly look of disappointment. But as much I lean on the excuse of ignorance, the real reason is fear. Because when I was twenty-five, I did do a self breast exam and the twelve hours that immediately followed were the hardest of my life.
“Can I come in to see Dr. Weiss?” I quietly spoke into the phone.
“What’s wrong?” the cranky nurse probed.
“I think I have a lump in my right breast,” I said, the words sounding foreign and itchy.
“Get here as soon as you can.”
My doctor was one of my dad’s childhood playmates, a tall man with a deep voice and casual demeanor. The few times I saw him beyond the confines of his office, he was always toting a man purse, an accessory I usually found unappealing but one he managed to work like nobody’s business. His confident ability to accessorize somehow offered a sense of comfort as I reclined on the table, my hospital robe thrown open and his gentle hands kneading my breasts.
“I need to make a call but I’m sending you across the street for a few scans,” he said as he stepped over to a chart and scribbled some notes. “You are not, I repeat, you are not allowed to leave there until I know what’s going on. And listen, if it’s bad, you’re going to Lankenau Hospital. I’ll call in a favor and you’ll have a biopsy done this afternoon.”
The words passed through me as if I were a ghost, pinging off the wall until falling to the floor. I repeated ‘Lankenau’ in my head over and over until the word lost all meaning, the beginning and the end melting together to make a single loop of letters.
“Paige?” the doctor asked.
“Hop to it.”
I drove the half mile over to the scan facility, took a seat in the back corner of the waiting room and superficially flipped through magazines until someone brought me back. I had a mammogram and then I was shown to another space where a tech slopped my boobs with jelly and ran a machine over them. She started with concentric circles and then moved to lines leading away from my nipple. I clenched my jaw and bit my lip, trying anything and everything to calm my nerves. I eventually settled on the idea that my breast was a flower, the nipple the center and her lines representing the petals. My spine was still tense but at least my mind was momentarily distracted.
When it was all done, when the goop was wiped away and my clothes were put back on, I returned to my original seat in the waiting room. I kept my eyes cast down, blinking back the tears teetering at the corners. I curled my fingers around the front of the seat and rocked myself back and forth the way a devout Jew sways during prayer. I wanted to be able to reach out and feel my mom or my sister, someone to shelter me within a grasp and confirm that everything would be alright.
“Paige, Dr. Weiss wants to talk to you,” the receptionist noted as she held the receiver in the air.
I took the slowest possible steps, scuffing the soles of my shoes against the industrial carpeting.
“Yeah?” I asked, my voice quiet and uncertain.
“It’s all clear. Just make sure you do an exam and keep an eye on things.”
After paying my fee, I escaped to my car. And there in the safety of a parking garage I cried. I let my insides tumble out until everything was expelled. Sometimes I think back to that day, those hours, and I can immediately sense a tensing of my fists and an ache in my jaw. It’s the tremble I feel whenever I get a call that my dad has fallen. Or sometimes when I read a certain passage at Dishalicious. As the words are digested, as the reality that we are all mortal settles in, I cry. Salty streams stain my cheeks as I struggle to accept the fact that some aspects of my life are completely out of my control.