Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Purgatory

So let me tell you what it's like to walk around and try and be a normal person for two weeks with a little black cloud named cancer following you around.

It's brutal.

You feel like a liar, especially with your kids. Every time you look at them. I wouldn't change my decision not to tell my boys, Batman and Robin, about what was looming until I actually knew if Elvis was in the building. I think its a good way to go. Why tell anybody until you really know what you are dealing with? Maybe that's me though, always trying to take care of everyone else, not so good at giving the same to myself. With my kids though, I know I made the right decision. They had two more weeks to believe that everything was as it always was in our house. We laughed. We ate dinner. Yeah sure, there were lots of times I wanted to jump into one or the other's arms and scream "MOMMY MIGHT HAVE CANCER, OMG" but I resisted.

and how bout at work folks? Wow. That was rough. I work in a fabulous restaurant in the Napa Valley as a server. I take my job very seriously; I love my job. It is a calling. I am part tour guide, part nurse, and part therapist with a PhD in improvisation. Most great servers are. Show us the money people. It ain't easy when you walk up to a table and they look up at you, especially the adorable couples on vacation. They are over the moon that they are in Napa, eating at a beautiful, acclaimed restaurant, and have hotel sex to look forward to later. I am their spirit guide. They count on me to deliver them to their best experience. I am an ambassador for the luscious Napa Valley and for my Chef.

"Hello, good evening, how are you tonight" I say and flash my best sparkly smile. "Hi, how are you?" they often gush back

I sit down, "Actually, I'm waiting to hear if I have breast cancer, it's looking like I do, um, you wanna hear the specials?"

No silly. That's not what I did. I gave the best performances of my career over those two weeks. At the end of my shift, a couple of times I cried in my manager's office. (Hello Manager. You know who you are. Thank you thank you for understanding and telling me to sit down and handing me the box of tissues.)

Each night after working so so hard to tell a lie, after the curtain falls and the show is over, you have to let it go. I would cry all the way home.

Can I just say now Mr. President and Congress and the American Medical Machine, while you are considering health care policy, will you please please please speed up the process of a patient receiving a breast cancer diagnosis? We have the technology. This is how it should go. You have your mammogram. Results should be read that day. If something looks abnormal, schedule right there the next two diagnostic tests, ultrasound and MRI. Those also can be read immediately. If there is still something suspicious, schedule that damn biopsy the next day. 3 days tops from abnormal mammo to diagnosis.

I think it is cruel and unusual punishment to make a person wait two weeks to receive a cancer diagnosis. We have the technology.

So while I was trying to act normal, the cracks were beginning to show in my facade. It was getting harder and harder every single day.

My ultrasound was the Monday after my mammogram. I had been through a few ultrasounds before, a couple when I was pregnant with Batman, and a couple when pregnant with Robin. They squeeze this gooey goop out of a tube and rub it all over your belly, and take the little wand and move it around until they find the heartbeat. The thump thump thump sounds muffled like it is traveling through tapioca pudding.

This time the gooey goop was rubbed all over my left breast, and the only thump thump thump was my heart pounding as she waved the magic wand over me. I turned to look at the screen. There was my boob on the screen and the inside of it looked like a beautiful starry sky. Wow. Like a galaxy inside of me, just beautiful. Then I saw it. A black hole. A dark dark black hole with no stars at all.

I watched the screen as the technician measured it. She stretched a small vertical line on the screen, the line grew until it came to the edge of the length of the black hole. She clicked. So there it is. It is measurable. Then she stretched a horizontal line and it grew until it measured the width of the black hole. Click.

Several times during she told me to hold really still so she could take a picture, and then it was over. She handed me a towel. I wiped the goop off my boob. No heartbeat. No baby on the way. I left empty handed, with just the image of the black hole in my head. A black hole in my starry sky.

Two days later I was scheduled for my biopsy. So I read up online. Fine needle aspiration. A small needle is inserted into the breast in several places and a sample of cells are removed. Cells are sent to pathology. Shouldn't hurt too much it said. There's also core needle biopsy. Larger needle like a tube inserted into the breast and instead of cells, pieces of tissue removed. Wow. I was glad I wasn't doing that one.

So I show up, they get me all ready. Can I just say I have been felt up more in these last weeks than my whole life? I think that was a serious error in judgment on my part. Anyway, my radiologist, I'll call him Dr. Zen, comes in. He has a handsome welcoming face, comes over, pats me and says "Ok are we ready? and what are we doing today?"

Get used to that when you go to the hospital, everyone asking you "so what are we doing today?" I guess that's the old fashioned way of making sure they don't remove your kidney when you're in there for an ingrown toenail.

"Hi Dr. Zen, I'm Debbie, nice to meet you and this is my boob and I'm here for a fine needle aspiration."

Young Frankenstein, Igor and Inga in front of HUGE castle doors.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: What knockers.
Inga: Oh, thank you doctor.


Close but no cigar Debbie, you are here for a core needle biopsy. Oh geez. He so kindly offers to put some lidocaine type stuff on the surface of my boob and I'm thinking, um excuse me, isn't most of what you're going to do way on the inside???? Geez even in the civil war they gave em a shot of whiskey. You be civil doctor and give me a swig of something and a bullet to clench in my teeth.

"Ok so this is how this works, we are going to put the hollow needle into your breast, and then we will use a tool to snip pieces of breast tissue from inside your breast."

OMFG.

"Now don't be alarmed about the sound, it sounds like a nail gun. We will need to take a few samples. I will count out one-two-three before I take the sample. Ok, are we ready?"

Are we ready? WTF? Where's my gun?

"Ok, you are going to feel a stick now..."

They don't tell you it's not like a needle stick, it's like a stick stick getting shoved into your boob with no whiskey. Ouch. Ouch. Deeper. Deeper.

"Ok we're in, you ready for the rest?"

I nod. I cannot speak at this point. My eyes are closed. I am absorbing that I am laying on this table, half dressed, flopsy and mopsy are out, and flopsy is being tortured. and why? Somebody tell me why? She has always been such a good girl.

"Ok here we go. One. Two. Three."

The sound of the nail gun startled the shit out of me and the feeling of being snipped deep inside flopsy was like when the roundhouse kick finally meets your jaw.

When I was sixteen, I saw a picture of Chrissie Evert in a magazine. She had double pierced ears. I thought this was the coolest thing ever, circa 1974. I asked my parents about getting my ears pierced. They concurred no, they didn't want me to look like Chita Rivera. That was my first act of civil disobedience. I went to the local beauty supply and had my ears double pierced. I looked fabulous. Like a blonde Chita Rivera. I put my earrings in after I got to school.

Why was I telling you that story? Oh yeah, so they pierce your ears with this gun. The sound of that piercing gun was worse than the earring impaling my virgin Doris Day ears. That's what the biopsy gun sounded like. A cross between a nail gun and the ear piercing gun.

Several rounds of one. two. three. Once the gun went off without the warning.

"You forgot to say one two three" I whispered.

"Oh oh I'm sorry" cute Dr. Zen says. "OK" and I think he's going to tell me we're all done. "I'd like to do another biopsy, in a different place on this same breast."

Place the flotation device over your shoulders and kiss your ass ga bye. When it was all over, Dr. Zen pushed back from the table and exclaimed a loud "Whew!" like thank god that's over!

"I'm sorry that was so rough on you doc." The nurses were hysterical. He patted me. "You are funny. I like you. and you're a real trooper. I'm sorry I hurt you today."

"I'm not saying I didn't enjoy this, but I didn't." Woody Allen

I rested that evening. It was my brother Bing's birthday. I texted him Happy Birthday. I couldn't talk to him. I thought I might blow my cover. Life is weird. It was my brother's birthday.

I went to work the next night and through the weekend; poor Flopsy all banged up and hurting. I can't do this. I can't do this.

The voice talked to me again. You can do this. You are doing this. I am right here with you. I forget who said it, Rumi, Kahlil Gibran "I am the breath inside your breath."

I have discovered that when they have to do things to you that really really hurt, you just let him do all the breathing for you.

The next piece to be found in my breast cancer scavenger hunt was an MRI. Scheduled the following Monday. Oh that'll be a piece of cake. So they put you in a tube. What's the big deal? I'm in the home stretch now. Pretty soon I'll be out of purgatory, and I will have landed in heaven where this has all been some mistake, or hell, this is real, this is happening, this is your life now. Nah.

I go for the MRI. They stick an IV in your arm and they shoot you with some dye and then stick you in the tube, take a few pictures, you're in, you're out. Like butta.

"When did you have the biopsy?" the radiologist says. I am not at the hospital now with my favorite Dr. Zen. I am at an MRI center.

"Last Wednesday."

"Why did they schedule your biopsy before your MRI? You are going to be all bruised and your breast traumatized with hematoma; how am I supposed to get a clear reading on your MRI?"

I held back a primal scream and the urge to fight like a girl, all on top of somebody, pulling hair and everything.

"I don't know if we can do this today. I'll be back."

Purgatory is a bitch folks. It's a real bitch. I wait and wait and wait.

"Ok we'll give it a shot, take her in."

The nurse takes me into the room, yup, there's the big tube. Ok, I can do this, I'll just lay on my back and think really good thoughts. I'll practice my meditation like in yoga. The nurse says "Here are some ear plugs for you."

I put them in.

Then she starts talking. I can see her lips moving but the sound goes in and out like when you keep losing the cellphone signal. She either asked me to climb up, lay on your tummy and place my breasts in the holes, or maybe she said line up, are you hungry... I thought I heard something more about dangling and we can take pictures, and then we'll shoot you and you'll die, no we'll shoot the dye and take more pictures and you'll be in there about an hour.

First of all lady, I mean you're awful nice and all, but who thought of this idea that you put the ear plugs in and then give the patient directions? The same guy that wanted the biopsy before my MRI? Asshole.

Do you have a step stool or something? Do I have to hitch kick my ass to get up on this table? I am not a long jumper, I could barely do a couple of pullups in the President's Physical Fitness test in high school. I was a cheerleader. I can jump and yell "beat em, bust em, that's our custom" and then I do the splits for the big finale.

The table is a narrow table for the lower half of my body, a brace with two big holes, then a face rest that is for someone 6 feet tall. I climb up, shimmy flopsy and mopsy into the holes, a large band of cold steel is the only support on my chest. My torso and neck are not long enough to rest comfortably in the face mask, I am partially in it. My lower back is killing me. I'm afraid the IV in my arm is going to pull out when they slide me into the tube. Are you people kidding me? I am going to be like this for an hour?

"Ok you ready? You are going to hear some loud knocking and loud banging and each will last 2 to 5 minutes. Then we'll do the next one. Ready?"

I am ready for a vacation. I am ready for a drink. I am ready for somebody to rub fermented soy beans all over my body and
"Ok, I'm ready."

That hour was like a lifetime in purgatory. About half way through, they shot the dye into my IV. When they sat me up, my head was pounding, my jaw felt like I had lock jaw, and I felt really dizzy.

The nurse said "I found the step stool."

The next day, I had just worked the lunch shift, sat out in my car and called my primary care doctor.

"Well, your MRI results are not in but the pathology from your biopsy is. It is cancer Debbie. It's called lobular carcinoma. I will be getting you in to see the oncologist and the surgeon, hopefully by the end of this week. I'm sorry. Hang in there."

I drove home as the little black cloud invaded my body, and morphed itself into one of those scrolling signs across my forehead.

Got Cancer?

1 comment:

Barbara said...

You have one heck of a talent for writing. I am a six year survivor of colon cancer. A friend was just diagnosed with lobular carcinoma approx. the same time as you were. (Carol Murray sent me the link to your blog.) Your words help me laugh and cry in remembrance of the various phases I went through. Now its in my rear view mirror, and I am thankful for that every day I wake up.

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