*M Stands For Mammogram

Breast cancer awareness

Breast cancer awareness (Photo credit: AslanMedia)

I  sit on the faded pink chairs, I know from every year before this, where the greasy stains are. The same old tattered magazines and breast cancer pamphlets are on the table. I sit in the chair facing forward as if I was on a train, leaving nowhere fast. I measure my time annually by these mammogram appointments. I can’t believe it’s been a year already.

I am given the thin, green hospital robe and the same monotone speech, no body wash, no cream soaps, no deodorant and I make the same stupid joke every year in my head (“that’s going to be worse for you than me.”)  I had a lump removed from my breast when I was 25, luckily it was benign but I remember the shock, and the experience in detail. I remember that the surgeon made me cry and the nurses comforted me. I’ve had a mammogram every year since. I am now 56 years old.

I know the instructions by heart but as soon as they tell me what to do, I forget. As soon as the nurse closes the curtain that makes that whoosh-metallic sound, I have no idea which way to put the gown on, my hands shake and I am nervous. I tell myself that I am sure everyone else here is anxious but that gives me no comfort. I wish I could be the type of person that could hide my feelings but I would need a full lobotomy for that. My feelings are seen from a mile away, they glow in neon orange lights like a flashing danger sign.

Finally it is my turn. A technician leads me into the mammogram room, I don’t complain about the discomfort ever and then I go back to the waiting room. I wait a long time, in fact I notice that all the women who I had been with have already left. There are a new batch of women here, waiting to be called in, having their tests and waiting with me. One by one they are leaving too. Now, I am really worried, this does not feel right.There are no nurses to ask, they only come in sporadically but as soon as I see one I ask her politely to please find out what is going on. She is kind (and you remember every kind word) and tells me they need two more pictures. They take two more pictures. Once again I am in the waiting room now waiting for my ultra sound. In every year before they have called me into the radiologist for the results of my mammogram BEFORE the ultra sound but not today. When, after thirty minutes, the nurse tells me to come for my ultra sound, I ask her the results of my mammogram and she says “we NEVER tell that to the patient, the radiologist tells you after both tests.” I have come here for the last fifteen years and it’s never been done like that but I am too weak to argue.

Once in the ultra sound room, the technician does a thorough job and I noticed her focusing, over and over my right breast. I asked if there was anything wrong and she laughed and said “I can’t tell you but the radiologist will give you the information.” “Don’t get dressed” she says as she leaves and I know that is a standard procedure. As if I was in a bad dream the technician comes back and says the radiologist wants a few more pictures. I have been here for three hours and I am trying very hard not to weep with exhaustion and fear.

Finally, they call my name for the radiologist. My whole body is shaking and my legs feel like jello. I hold on to the walls for support. The radiologist says glibly “You’re fine.” “Yeah, you’re fine, no changes from last year, good to go for another year.”He give me a slip of paper and with a wave of his hand he encourages me to leave. I had lost my voice. I finally managed to ask about the nodule and he said they had compared it and nothing changed.

Thinking back I was in shock; it reminded me of the time when I did have a lump in my breast and it had to be removed.I remembered having to wait so long for the biopsy, more than a week. I knew I had heard good news today but it hadn’t sunk in yet. I walked back to the changing room with fingers trembling and slowly changed back into my clothes. I was grateful, believe me I was grateful; my emotions just hadn’t caught up just yet.

*Please note that more women die of heart failure than all cancers combined. My breast surgeon told me that one day, smirking and grinning widely, telling me it was “good for his business.” Visit Carolyn Thomas’ page Heartsisters.org for more information.

Pink, Plus

pink for the cure

pink for the cure (Photo credit: silviaON)

Some people measure time by New Year’s Eve, they stay up till midnight, drink champagne and say good-bye, hoping for a better year. I used to measure years by the start of school in September for my children. I was the queen of the mommy hot-line, until they grew up and went to college.

Now, I measure time by my annual mammogram; it feels like I was just IN this same pink room with the stained chairs a minute ago. After having mammograms since I was in my twenties, I know the drill but the nurse tells me again, what to do: place the clothes in the closet, gown open in the front and as soon as she draws the curtain around me, my mind goes blank. I forget everything: did she say the opening goes in the back or the front? I didn’t use deodorant, (their loss, I think to myself) and I can never find the tie for the robe. Every. Single. Year.

I sit in this crowded room, next to me there is a tray of free pink pens and individually wrapped pink mints. I forgot for a second, that it’s October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. After reading many articles about how “Pink” has become an incredible marketing tool for companies as well as a great fund raiser. Awareness for Breast Cancer is WONDERFUL but I know that heart disease is the number one cause of death for women than all cancers combined. My own breast surgeon laughed at that (I know) and said “Hey, it’s good for me.” That definitely soured me a bit. Please read *Carolyn Thomas’ information on Heart Sisters. Carolyn is a pioneer among women.

The technician calls my name immediately and I am joyful, “This will be very quick” she says and I foolishly believe her. I kept this appointment and ultra- sound a secret from my mother who I know will worry all day; I keep this from her, I’ve already inherited the job. The test is quick, I go out to the waiting room again and sit and wait. All the people who have been with me have had their mammogram, are dressed and have left. Doors slam loudly. I can’t sit anymore, I stand, I pace. I don’t go to the women’s room for fear of missing my name being called. My head feels detached and numb and my stomach feels nauseous. I try to hide my nerves but now it’s been over two hours.  I asked a technician, very politely, if she wouldn’t mind checking for me and she was kind and I was grateful. She came back after ten minutes and tells me that the ultra-sound request was lost (yes, the one they had confirmed on Friday by phone) and they needed another one. Couldn’t they have just told me the result of the mammogram first?  No.

I was led to a different chair now, for the ultra-sound, where a well-meaning but over-talkative technician gives me a detailed explanation of what she sees. “This is a lymph node” “This is something, it could be fat or could be bad like a tumor” “I have to be honest with my patients but it’s not official, official only comes from the Dr.” She is talking to the wrong patient. She is scaring me to death. This ultra-sound takes at least 25 minutes. She takes me to the radiologist to sit and wait again. After what seems to be a very long time, she comes out and tells me “Doctor wants one more picture of lymph node” At this point, I’ve pretty much lost my mind but accepted my fate and I’m calmer. She does the picture again (another ten minutes) and we go back. I wait until the technician motions me in. The radiologist does not ask me to sit down but in an off-hand way that lasted under two seconds says “You’re fine.”  I stutter as she is about to wave me out of her door “Wait, what about the lymph node, and the tumor/fat that you were looking at?” They were fine. I truly felt like I had cut into her lunch time and she was being disturbed.

I had been in that facility for over three and a half hours, my best friend and my husband who DO NOT worry, were worried. There was no happy feeling or relief because of all the time, drama and their unpleasant way. Usually I would have said something but in this situation, after this time, I found myself completely tired, numb and mute.

I spent Tuesday in bed, still not over that stressful day. I wanted to avoid a flare-up of my Fibromyalgia but I have to say I still haven’t gotten my fight back. Yet.

*For more information on Heart Sisters:myheartsisters.org/

A Bright Star In The Dark Night

Dark Moon Tree on Night Sky / Magic Fantasy Space

Dark Moon Tree on Night Sky / Magic Fantasy Space (Photo credit: epSos.de)

After hearing ‘Good Morning America’s’ Robin Roberts’ story about breast cancer and subsequently MDS and after reading the amazingly talented Suleika Jahoud’s journey as a young adult with cancer (“Acute Myeloid Leukemia) (I am in awe of this incredibly beautiful and amazingly talented young woman) in the Science Times (Tuesdays of The New York Times) I wanted to do more than write a check for cancer research. I wanted to give something of myself; I ordered the free bone marrow kit and received the four swabs that came in the mail. I thought I would get the swabs and swab my cheeks that night but I found myself not doing that. Was I procrastinating or just thinking? Actually, I was just taking it all in. I did the swabs last night, with my husband overseeing it, and the envelope now sits in our bright red mailbox, flag raised, waiting to be picked up.

I’ve always wanted to do this and for years thought it was expensive, painful and really didn’t know how to go about getting the information for the bone marrow donation kit. Because of the Robin Roberts’ story, it was advertised and thus readily available. Sure, I give money, when I can, to cancer research, but this was personal. If I could help someone live, my G-d, I would do it. Imagine the feeling of giving someone the opportunity to live out their life, so they can marry or live to see their children grow up or have a new life because you are helping them. I can’t imagine NOT doing it, can you?

I’ve always been an organ donor, especially since my father-in-law had a liver transplant before I even dated my husband. If it wasn’t for his liver transplant he would never have seen us date and get married, meet his grandchildren and watch them graduate from high school and go off to college. This November we will all be here together celebrating Thanksgiving; how could I not be an organ donor?

My goal in life was to be a good mother and I think I achieved that. My two children are grown now, at 18 and almost 20. I am so proud of them, of the people they have become. But, this is one more chance to help a person in the world. If we are a match, dear stranger, I will step up and do you proud. I will put aside all my fear of pain and discomfort and I will try to make your dreams come true. I will donate my bone marrow. If it doesn’t work, yes, I will be sad, but at least I will know that I tried to help.

I watched the shiny red mailbox on and off all day and only when the flag of the mailbox was lowered, when the mail had been picked-up, did I sigh with relief and smile, knowing, at least, I had followed through and given someone, somewhere, like a bright star in a dark night, a tiny speck of hope.

DEDICATED TO ROBIN ROBERTS AND SULEIKA JAHOUD

*Carry on Tuesday: A few of my favorite things

English: Breat Cancer ribbons

Wherever I go, I arrive early. Not on time like most people but about twenty minutes before my scheduled appointment. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no rush to be in any doctor’s office, especially this doctor. I think ‘I just want to be there and get it over with.’ The walls are pale pink, the chairs alternate between fuchsia and plum, first one than the other, all around the room. When I am here I just want to re-arrange the chairs, put all the fuchsia together and then the plum or put all the chairs in the middle of the room and stack them up. I know this room well. This morning I sit in the waiting room with a woman named Mary, she is here alone too. Once in a while a husband, boyfriend, lover, brother comes too. I sit here with my anxiety waiting for the nurse to call my name.

My doctor is the product of two old hippies, his first name is Pond. No really, I couldn’t make that up if I tried. Pond enters the examining room and I automatically sit straight up, with the blue hospital gown open in the front. He is a breast surgeon that I see every every year. He examines my breasts, first one than the other; I wish he would close his eyes but mostly he stares into space. He starts talking about his vacation in the Hamptons and I shush him, telling him to concentrate. He laughs and says “It’s a good thing I’m not chewing gum, right?” I say a quick, terse yes. I am waiting for him to say, the usual breezy, “it’s all good” but this time he goes over and over one spot on my right breast and kneads it as if he is making bread. I become perfectly still and feel freezing cold in less than one second.

I pick up on another vibe in the room that has changed; I know something is wrong. He straightens up and in his bright blue eyes there is a new hue of concern. His face is still unreadable but his forehead now has deep wrinkles. I have never seen that before but I have always dreaded it. “There’s a mass, ” he says. He has me feel what he feels, but I barely want to touch my body since there seems to be an intruder there, a most unwelcome guest. This is a feeling I had before when I needed a biopsy of a lump, thirty years ago. I was very young then and very naive.  I remember my parents drove up from New York to Boston to stay with me while I waited for the results. Dear God, those feelings of fear and panic come back immediately.

Now, I am a postmenopausal woman but before I was a youngster, a youngster in shock. I remember going to the doctor with my best friend. ‘It would be nothing,’ we thought but I ended up needing surgery though the lump turned out to be benign. I remember staring into the mirror and drinking coffee, day by day, early in the morning of my one bedroom apartment and wondering how I could still drink coffee normally and function at work with this huge secret.

I have to focus now but I can’t; crazy things go through my mind like the scene in Mary Poppins with the chimney sweeps dancing. I see Lassie in the closing credits where he puts his paw up and remember that my sister and I always loved that part the best. I try to remember the lyrics of a song I just bought on iTunes that reminds me of my teenagers but my mind goes blank.

The nurse schedules me to come back in a few days for a needle biopsy, that is familiar too. I try to remain perfectly still, trying to clear the thoughts and panic clouding my mind but it is virtually impossible. What can I focus on, I ask myself? My daughter’s blue eyes, my son’s olive complexion, my husband’s kiss on top of my head, my sister and I posing for photographs on a rooftop in Brooklyn Heights, my mother’s soft hands. I try to picture my puppy Lucy but the images change to my deceased dog, Storm, who died unexpectedly and dramatically of cancer of the spleen. I can only try to remember highlights of my past favorite things. It’s my only chance of survival: I remember the free trip to Hawaii when we were upgraded to first class, the small town of Roses near Barcelona, Spain. My favorite memory, sunsets at  Cape Cod when the children were young, when we were all young. I try to imagine these things to steer my mind away from the doctor and nurse talking to me about scheduling a possible biopsy of my breast tissue yet I can’t remember one thing they said. As soon as you feel like you are a patient, you become one. I feel weak and tired, sore, and very, very cold even though it is 93 degrees outside and humid.

I need to drive home, alone, in my car down the parkway that winds and bends dramatically. How can I calm myself down enough to do this and not crash my car into a tree? I have no idea. I turn on the engine and on automatic pilot, I just point my car in the right direction. Luckily, the car seems to take over and I am just a passenger at the wheel, driving slowly, steadily, on my way home.

*I wrote this last night before my appointment. While some of the facts are true, the end and some details are all FICTION.

I Will Cross My Fingers For You

Fingers Crossed

Fingers Crossed (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hi new person,

I just met you for a second on Facebook before, I don’t know you but I saw your name. All I know is that we were brought together by someone we know in common, a gentle, spiritual medium named Roland Comtois. You asked him for healing energy for your doctor’s appointment tomorrow but I think he had signed off by then. I offered to send healing energy to you and asked for others to join in. I don’t know you but any decent person would understand your anxiety and fear.

You are having a check up for your yearly mammogram, having been diagnosed with breast cancer before. Of course you are nervous and scared. Who wouldn’t be? I will give you advice that my Dad, when he was alive, gave me: Stay in Neutral. If you make a conscious effort it helps. You can avoid all the “what if….scenarios.”

I will send you magic dust so you can sleep tonight and get some rest and tomorrow I will pray that your examination goes well. I don’t even remember your first name now but I’m sure my healing energy and prayers will find the right person. I would do this in a second for anyone who needed it or wanted it. Family and friends of course, but just hearing in my mind, the tone of your message was enough for me to volunteer.

I hope all goes well but even if it doesn’t, you will have the strength to deal with it and carry on. Why? Because there is no other choice. We all fight to be alive, it’s an instinct. I think you will be fine, I praying for that. Good luck tomorrow my unknown friend.

My thoughts will be with you all day.

Good Luck!

Laurie

Losing Dawn

Farmland near Queniborough. Unploughed stubble...

Image via Wikipedia

I will never look at the afternoon winter light in the same way again. My friend Dawn died today, February 11th, 2011 when the sky was blue, the sun shone through wind-swept trees next to ice and black snow, nudging a path. From inside, it looked too pretty for someone to have died.  The sun was low and beamed on the bare empty branches like gold necklaces or a child‘s long, blond, sun-streaked hair.

I knew for a long time that my friend Dawn was dying. All of us in the neighborhood, walking partners and friends knew how her breast cancer metastasized to brain cancer. Hearing the words from my friend Margaret that Dawn had passed away a couple of hours ago in her house, was still shocking. Shocking in a mute, surreal way. It’s not as if I thought she would make a miraculous recovery, but if we didn’t see or hear about her, she was still okay and that was soothing and comforting. Intellectually, I should have known better; I didn’t. Knowing someone is going to die is so very different from their actual death. I couldn’t feel a thing.

I remember writing: “Praying For Dawn” on my blog and I made a copy for her. She read it and loved it and told me her family read it too. She even left me a message on my answering machine to say “Thank you,” I never erased that message.

Her daughter had just started college in Vermont as a February Freshman a few days earlier yet there was a car from Vermont  parked outside their house. Dawn and her husband John have three children, her daughter, age 18,  the eldest, her middle son, 16 and their youngest a boy age 14. There is no doubt in my mind that Dawn refused to die until her daughter was at school, just like my father lived through Christmas and died five days later, ten years ago.

What do you say when it’s actually over? Sometimes, nothing. The call I got from my friend should have clued me in but it didn’t. When she said “are you sitting down?” you would think that I would known immediately but I didn’t. My first thought was about my friend’s mother who is in her eighties. I, very slowly,  sat down. Thirty seconds later it hit me, “Oh Dear God, not Dawn,” I whispered into the phone. “Yes, she said and paused, Dawn passed away today, two hours ago.”

She died in her house, around the corner from me. Her parents who live on the Cape had come down a lot these past few years.  Margaret and I used to see them walking arm in arm, crying as they tried to walk slowly around the corner, holding on to each other for support. It took every bit of self-control not to run to them and hug them but they didn’t want to see Dawn’s friends, friends who were living when their daughter was dying. Would you?

Before my father died he used to say that “nothing is as important as your health” all the time and I remember it. I too, know grief. Now, I am grieving for my friend and her husband, children and their extended family. I am glad my friend’s pain and suffering are gone but knowing someone is going to die and them actually dying are two very strong and separate emotions. It’s the feeling of in between; it’s too new to comprehend and yet it was about four years in the making. Four years when I first noticed her bald, shiny head and twinkling green eyes standing outside wearing a cap in the pure, naked sunshine.

I laid beneath a sheet, two fraying cotton blankets, one dingy white, one blue, a thick burgundy colored comforter and an old beige puffy down comforter. l huddle beneath these blankets and still my hands are freezing and so too, my toes. I dig deep down inside the blankets and try to cover myself but I still don’t feel warm, I think I will never feel warm again.

In Memory Of Dawn

The World Just Changes A Little Bit

Burning match (cerilla ardiendo)

Image by John C. Shaw via Flickr

I just received news from my sister that her friend Allison passed away last night. I knew Allison but had only met her once or twice. She was a very warm and charming woman who was my sister’s neighbor. She leaves behind her husband and a daughter, the age of my nephew, Jon, 21. She died of breast cancer.

I have a friend that lives around the corner who is also dying of cancer. She too had breast cancer and then brain cancer. We don’t ask questions, they are a very private family. No matter what her condition is she tries to attend, her children’s basketball games or important events. She doesn’t care about being seen in a wheelchair or weighing barely 90 pounds or the fact that her mouth dragged down and over to the side, why should she? She is one of the best moms I have ever met. She will be with her three children as long as a single breath is left in her body.

Two years ago, when she was still able to walk, unassisted, my neighbor and I would each run to our windows to keep track of her. If we saw her walking alone, one of us would crush our feet into sneakers and pretend that we had walked too, and join her to keep her company. She wouldn’t ask for help, but we knew that we couldn’t let our friend walk unsteadily alone. She refused to use a cane; but she was happy for the company; we were happy to see her.

If we made “extra” food for our families, we would simply drop platters of freshly roasted chicken, baked ziti and meatballs at her door with a loaf of warm french bread or a tray of fudge brownies. When she could only drink liquids my new specialties became soup; peach soup in the summer, chicken soup in the fall. They never asked for meals but they always welcomed it. We would call before we brought a meal over and ask if it was a convenient time; sometimes we left it on the wooden bench near the door. We never saw our friend on these visits; we didn’t have to.

My best friend from high school, Paula, had breast cancer and finally now, after about 6 or more hospitalizations, a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, infections and reconstructive surgery, she is trying to heal. It has been a long road for her. Another friend, Margie, with thyroid cancer, said she doesn’t think about celebrating her five-year anniversary of being cancer free; her oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering said that “once you have cancer, you are never cancer free.” I don’t want to believe that but it is sobering.

I am sorry for my friends, I worry in advance for all the important women in my life. I am grateful for every healthy minute of our lives, and I understand how fragile and unpredictable life is. I am incredibly grateful. The world changes a bit, doesn’t it, when another person dies, when a soul leaves the body. It’s like a candle or a match, one after another, forcibly being blown out while it is still burning bright. It seems that their lives are extinguished way too early, too violently and too harshly. Snuffed, taken away, burnt, dead. “I knew she was going to die” my sister said sadly to me” but somehow it isn’t the same until it really happens.”

Dedicated to all cancer survivors and those we lost who live on in our hearts.

lucky (for Jolene, the Bloggers and Invisible Pain Carnival)

I think I am lucky. I do. Now everyone will be mad at me and I will be thrown out of this precious group of supporters. I’m sorry and I know this is not what you are looking for in this blog carnival but I have to be true to my self. I am lucky. First of all, I don’t think my symptoms are all that bad compared to many of the other bloggers; I feel like I don’t deserve this group. Yes, I have pain but it doesn’t sound half as bad as my fellow members. I feel like a fraud, and a lurker and ashamed.  Second, a close friend of mine is dying of cancer, around the corner from me and she has weeks, maybe months to live. She is a wonderful person, someone with a sunny disposition, a great mother, good friend, an absolutely lovely family. Her name is Dawn and she is at least ten years younger than I am so she is in her early forties. When she was able to walk she would ask me how I WAS doing. How I WAS feeling and when you asked her, she always said “fine.”

She is not fine anymore. She had breast cancer and then brain cancer and now I don’t even know where the cancer is because it might be all over her. There are no more treatments for her, no more cures, no more hope. I am alive and she is dying. She has three children, 19, 16 and 13, all three amazing kids. They don’t deserve this in life and neither does she.

I drop by with food, I make a special chilled peach soup for Dawn because that is the only thing she can eat, a tablespoon or two of soup, if her family is lucky. I haven’t seen her in weeks but I know she got bad news on Sunday from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital in NY and no-one has seen her since. I don’t know how long she has to live but I feel it isn’t going to be very long. Her parents were in from Wisconsin for a long time and when her mom saw me and our mutual friend, her mom started crying and she and her husband, Dawn’s parents, continued to walk, slowly around the block holding on to one another.

I have Fibromyalgia and an Auto-immune disease called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. It was partially diagnosed 4 years ago. I felt like” I had the flu but without the fever.”  That is the only way I could describe what I was feeling and how badly it hurt.  I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t do anything but sleep and moan, my whole body aching all the time. I felt like it had been flattened by an enormous truck,and the truck kept going but I did not.

I felt sorry for myself and my mother, and sister and husband and kids and friends felt sorry for me. I get tired easily, I live in the “fibro fog” people talk about, I can’t keep up with everyone else; I don’t try to either.  Still, with aching limbs, and joints and bones I am alive. Yes, I hurt but I don’t think I hurt as badly as some of you and I don’t hurt as much as Dawn’s children who are at home, by her side as she breathes, as long as she breathes. I may not have the perfect life, my husband hasn’t worked in a year and we have no income coming in. I have a Junior and Senior in High School but I can’t complain, I won’t complain because I don’t deserve to.

I am here today with clenched shoulders and tired, swollen feet, aching, tender and swollen, red joints but I am here. Even though there are a lot of things I could complain about I can’t. I won’t, because I’m lucky.