The passing of former First Lady Betty Ford this week has brought forth countless tributes. Like many Americans, I admired Mrs. Ford. I didn't agree with her on everything, but I respected her candidness on topics that at that time were not openly discussed.
I just saw a segment on TV about her battle with breast cancer. I've known several breast cancer survivors. Sadly, I've lost friends to cancer. I don't know anyone whose life has not been affected by cancer, at least indirectly.
And I've had my own close call.
It was the summer of 1984, the Labor Day weekend. Collin was five years old. I was thirty-one, unemployed for three months. My agent was reading the manuscript that would become Dance of the Gods. I had never had a mammogram or done a self-exam. There was no history of breast cancer in my family that I knew of, so I wasn't concerned.
I went to bed that Saturday night, feeling optimistic that I was on the verge of finally realizing a lifelong dream. I turned over, my arm falling across my breast, and...what the heck was that? I was suddenly wide awake. It was huge, and very close to the surface. How had I missed it before?
I couldn't even make an appointment with my doctor until Tuesday morning. That was one long weekend. I called as soon as I possibly could on Tuesday and was told to come in immediately.
The doctor examined me. He tried to do a needle biopsy but got nothing. The next stop: the hospital. I had a mammogram. The results were uncertain. I was told I'd have to have surgery. The next day, I was admitted to Incarnate Word hospital.
(I'm almost certain this thing was invented by the Marquis de Sade)
The surgeon came in to talk to me. He explained that while it was "probably not" cancer, we had to be prepared. He would remove the tumor and send it to the lab while I was still on the table. If it was benign, I'd be taken to recovery and released from the hospital that evening. If it was malignant, a mastectomy would be necessary. This was a large tumor. If cancerous, the lymph nodes would almost certainly be involved.
He was going to leave the consent form with me. "You can think about it and sign in the morning," he suggested.
"There's nothing to think about," I said. "If there's cancer in there, I want it out."
He was surprised. "Most women are reluctant to lose a breast, even if keeping it means risking their lives."
"It woudn't be the first time I've said goodbye to a boob." (I don't think he realized what kind of boob I was talking about.)
Vanity is a huge waste of energy, girls.
So early the next morning, I was carted off to surgery. When I woke in the recovery room, the first thing I became aware of was the enormous bandage on my chest. I concluded it had been cancer and I was now lopsided. And I thought getting clothes to fit before was difficult.
My surgeon came in, surprised to find me awake. "I thought you'd be out for at least another hour or two. I told your mother to go home."
"I got hungry. Did you get all of it?"
He laughed. "The tumor was benign."
"Then what's with this?" I asked, referring to the bandage.
"I need food."
He rolled his eyes. "When you get back to your room."
I was released from the hospital that evening. In spite of my frequent calls to the nurses' station, the IV was still in my arm when Mom and Collin arrived. Collin took one look and started to cry. I explained that I was so thirsty, the nurses decided to save time by running a hose into my arm. He seemed okay with that, though I think he wondered why they didn't just stick it in my mouth.
In the years since, there have been other lumps, all cysts. I've reached the point at which finding one no longer scares me. My doctor warns that kind of complacency can be dangerous. He told me of a patient who, after a dozen false alarms, almost refused a biopsy for number thirteen.
That one turned out to be cancer.