I saw my oncologist last week for a check-up. These visits are pretty uneventful these days which is the way you want your oncology appointments. They draw my blood from my one available arm, take my blood pressure, temperature and weigh me. Next I am told to change into a gown and I park it in a room. I would like to take this opportunity to tell you, again, that I was the youngest person in the oncology ward by approx. 200 years.
When the doc comes in we talk about how I am feeling, physically and emotionally, my family and the latest cancer gossip. Next I go up on the exam table and she gives me a very thorough breast exam which is hilarious as I can’t feel anything. It is like a phantom second base.
This time she lingered for a while in my right armpit. This is my cancerous side. I had a flashback to a visit with my breast surgeon in early December. I recall her lingering in that same area a long time too. Oh no.
The oncologist asks me if I have noticed any change in the area. I try not to touch my breasts or affected armpit, as it creeps me out, so no- I haven’t felt anything. I also remind her that I have zero sensation in my armpit because, DUH, I had a mastectomy, so no- I have not noticed any change.
I see her glance at her trusted nurse in the room. I immediately chastise myself for going to this appointment alone. I know better.
She says that by the feel of it and the fact that it moves when I move my arm, she is not worried at all, but she wants me to get an ultrasound.
I am trying to be cool as a cucumber, like, no big whoop, an ultrasound sounds fun! They give me the number to call and schedule and say if I have a problem getting in soon, to call the oncologist back and they will weasel me in. Oh so now you guys are worried enough that you want to weasel me in? Cool. (NOT COOL AT ALL I HATE THIS SO MUCH).
I call to schedule an appointment and they ask me why I am not scheduling a mammogram and an ultrasound. I say in a semi-jokey, semi-furious tone, ‘Because I don’t have any breasts!’ The scheduling woman is confused, but going with it. I am given an appointment for just a few days later at the same Breast Center where I had my initial testing and subsequent diagnosis.
This time I do take my own advice and ask my mom to accompany me to the appointment. When we get to the door of the Breast Center I feel like I am going to be ill. I wish I had taken an anti-anxiety drug. PTSD is coming crashing down. I start talking incessantly to my mom about everything and nothing. I even force her to read and critique the Talbots catalog on the table next to us.
I am called in and taken to the room where they make you change into the magenta shirt-gown. All the other women in the magenta shirt-gowns are, again, many decades my senior. There were only 4 of us in the room, which means statistically I was most likely the only one who had ever had breast cancer (1/8 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime).
When I get called, I am led to the same mammogram room I was in almost 2 years ago. I could have just said, ‘excuse me, but I am not scheduled for a mammogram, only an ultrasound, but since I am me I said, ‘Oh I don’t need a mammogram, I don’t have any breasts.’ I am the most awkward.
The ultrasound room was the same one I was in 2 years ago. The very kind nurse starts asking me to recall my entire diagnosis and treatment. I start to cry. Thank god my mom was there. She rubbed my back like the doula she is. At one point I watched as the kind nurse drew big Xs over the image of two breasts on her computer screen indicating that there were no breasts to check.
Once situated on the table, the very same radiologist that did my ultrasound and biopsy 2 years ago walked in. Good news here is that Dr. Goldstein’s wife has been reading my blog and probably about a year ago, I ran into Dr. and Mrs. Goldstein at Costco where we had a lovely conversation about the intersection of our lives. I was happy to see Dr. Goldstein’s face. And Mrs. Goldstein, I’ve never forgotten you and how kind you were to me that day in front of the Special K samples.
I was able to use my tattoo to successfully map to the doc where the bump was. Hidden bonus to a mastectomy tattoo. After much pushing on various areas of my sensory-devoid armpit he finally declares ‘I see nothing remarkable here.’
Now normally I would be extremely offended to hear those words in conjunction with any part of me, but in this case, I was ecstatic!
The ‘bump’ is just tissue, possibly scar tissue, that is just part of my anatomy after a mastectomy with node dissection, a separate axillary node surgery and a large infected seroma.
I was told when I chose a mastectomy that I would never need another mammogram again. The fine print must have stated that perhaps I would need an ultrasound after being told I had a suspicious armpit lump, but I didn’t read that part.
It all goes to show that breast cancer is never over. I don’t much like the term ‘survivor,’ as it indicates that those who lost their lives due to cancer didn’t ‘survive’ anything which they most certainly did. But those of us who are lucky enough to stick around earthside have to survive each day anew. Something will hurt or be swollen, we will sweat through our sheets due to medically induced menopause, we will make changes to the way we live in order to strive to be ‘healthier’, we will have flashbacks to chemo upon smelling something that transports us straight back there.
We are all survivors.
But today, I am holding my survivor flag a bit higher because of a scary reminder that health can be fleeting and I am lucky to be cleared to live on just one more day.