Monday, January 31, 2011

the call back

I had my annual mammogram screening about 10 days ago.I began mammogram screenings when I turned forty three years ago. My mother barely survived breast cancer and by all odds should have died when she was diagnosed. She was only 44 years old.

I have written about this before. Two years ago I underwent a bilateral biopsy, which turned out to be negative. I apparently have tissue that is very hard to read, adding insult to injury, with the sheer terror I feel every year when I return to face the ultimate free falling dive into mortality. That's exactly what it feels like.

I went to have my mammogram about 10 days ago. I wasn't worried. I have had 2 clear mammograms in the last two years. So I was utterly shocked when I got the dreaded call back. I would be going back for a second look, for further investigation into a "palpable finding". I had to wait another 5 days, and I thought I wouldn't make it. I was sick with worry and terror. I couldn't stop touching my sons' cheeks and smelling their hair. I couldn't stop holding my husband's hand. I couldn't sleep and couldn't eat. I couldn't quite live.

Is there anything so humbling as facing the possibility of your own mortality? If I could imagine the absolute worst disease, worst diagnosis, worst threat to face, it would be breast cancer. I know this is not objectively true, but I think my testimony to my mother's illness when I was about my eldest son's age has made the ultimate fear even more more horrible... this even though she survived and survives still, and is living the fullest of lives. The eyes of a sixteen year old girl, at a time when the treatment of breast cancer meant whipping the patient down to her last breath of life, savaged and hairless and sick, have left me still with horrible fear. I imagine the horror of being mutilated through surgery (even though I know many women who have been through this and have gone through successful reconstructive surgery), the debilitating sickness from chemotherapy (even though I personally know several people who have come through chemotherapy relatively well, and have recovered fully with a shine to their cheeks) and the humility of losing my hair (What is wrong with me? Am I so vain?). Last year, I lived through an illness which left me checking my eyes for jaundice and twenty pounds lighter, navigating a personal odyssey to find health care without ever giving in to terror, but the idea of breast cancer is for me insurmountable. I cannot forget the wraith-like figure of my mother as she passed by my bedroom door when I was a teenager, or the memory of checking for the rise and fall of her bedsheets as she slept to make sure that she was still breathing. I wish I could, but I can't.

My follow-up was negative. I am fine. I do not have breast cancer. I did not breathe for a week and let out such a sigh when it was over that I thought I might vomit for joy. This was another chapter past, and hopefully I will find the courage as I grow older to face these challenges with more strength and dignity. I don't know. What I do know is that the precariousness of living in a country without access to adequate health care was once again forefront, and I knew that I would leave if I was ill, uprooting my entire family and future. As I have said before, I am so lucky to have that option. And I am lucky to have another year of reprieve, and to hopefully have left behind a 2010 of disease and pain, with a body ready for living.


A grant from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation made both of my mammogram tests possible, and would have also funded an eventual biopsy if necessary and life saving treatment. Please take a moment to find out about this incredible organization and give anything you can. Everyone has in some way been touched by this illness. You can help to find a cure.

1 comment:

Catherine Bolton said...

Hi Jennifer,
I just read this ... late, but I seem to be behind with everything.
As a breast-cancer survivor, I can't emphasize enough how important it is to CHECK CHECK CHECK. I had my oncology visit last week and am CLEAR nearly 12 years down the road. But the fear continues to lurk, and it always will. Here in Italy I'm checked for free. Thank goodness the Komen organization exists in the US of A.