Today as I ride along the familiar route to Abbott Northwestern Hospital, I think of all the times I have bumped along the potholes of 28th Street, turned left on 10th Avenue, entered the ramp and circled the dark floors to park, find the floor and suite where we were expected. There was a Tuesday morning in December when we came for a baby to be born. And the warm July night of our 27th wedding anniversary to get a simple answer to Phil’s chest pain. All those times I drove to Minnesota Oncology across the street to take Dad for blood draws and scan results. And Mom too, for a time.
Today under the covered drive-thru, Phil dropped me off at the entrance of the Piper Center, named for Virginia Piper, the Orono woman who was the victim of a high profile kidnapping from her home when I was in high school. Her husband delivered the $1 million ransom himself and “Ginny” was found tied to a tree in the woods near Duluth two days later. She died of breast cancer.
As I hustle in for my breast biopsy, I pass a figure sitting in a wheel chair waiting for a ride, just inside the door. She is gaunt, capped, masked and gray. Was I seeing the ghost of all the cancer patients who have come through these doors, crossing over from well to sick? Or was I looking in the mirror of who I was to become? The image I feared most. The sick me.
I feel afraid to face that possibility, after knowing what happened to Mom in a few short weeks from diagnosis to hospice and Dad in a year’s time from robust to frail, as if someone was slowly letting the air out of his tires. I don’t want to be sick, I don’t want cancer, but this time the fear is more of a spreading knowledge that this time, this one is different. I won’t be able to let this pass me by. The thing that is different, is I made the discovery, not a mammogram. And I was alarmed at how large and spongy the mass seemed. Right along the bra line close to my rib. I have had two other breast biopsies in the left, so I was surprised the right was the trouble maker.
The thing I fear is the loss of wellness and vitality, things I treasure about my life, and qualities I work hard at preserving. Maybe I was overconfident about my health, taking for granted being able- bodied and whole, how that all might be different. The wholeness part seems so important now that it is very possible I will be losing a part of me. A part that I see.
I knew before the nurse practitioner said anything, my anxiety building with each hour closer to the news. The day at work passing at a glacial pace, in the days before global warming. The call came at 2:30 sharp, 24 hours after my biopsy.
This is a nurse practitioner from The Piper Breast Center. Are you someplace you can talk? I have results from your breast biopsy. Pause. I am sorry to tell you there is a malignancy in the tissue of your breast.
It is breast cancer.
Pause. With these words I became someone new. Diseased. Failed. I could be very sick, the possibility was there now.
Do you have something to write down the type of cancer that was found?
I take a pad from my desk and with a mechanical pencil write the words. So far I didn’t like the word invasive. And I had never heard of lobular cancer. I would come to learn with limited free range on Google on an incognito search that ILC makes up of 10% of cancers in the breast, so not the most common one. Think of breast tissue–ducts that allow milk to flow like stems or branches that lead to lobes or the flowers that are rounder, flatter, more amorphous. Ghostlike.
Everything in that moment turned to gray. You know in the Wizard of Oz, when young Kansas Dorothy is trying to get to the farm when the tornado is coming? It isn’t until Dorothy steps in to the Land of Oz that she crosses in to technicolor. Well, think of it in reverse. I went from living color to black and white.
For Christmas, the kids got me a color consultation. I have written about this seasonal color theory that our hair coloring and skin tone lend itself to a certain color palette related to a season of the year. Winters wear cool, vibrant colors. Springs can wear more muted warm tones. I wrote about this in What to Wear? (November 2018). In the early 1980s there were house parties where a consultant would “do” your colors. You were left with swatches of colors within your season to make the most compatible choices for clothing and make-up.
At first I took a bit of offense to this. Those who know me well can see that I take great care in my appearance, and put together outfits with probably too much concern. Was I dowdy and washed out? I admit, my wardrobe is heavy on neutrals, cream and beige, soft grays and actually every shade of gray. Sometimes it feels safer to be more understated. And lets face it, basic black is the default for 90% of the population.
Maybe it was the best gift ever, like many that have come to me. They come in the form of a Grubhub meal, our daughter and son-in-law brought the first night after the news, when I wasn’t sure where to be, what to do, much less make a meal. They came, Louis bursting in eager to build the Brio train downstairs with Papa. And baby Loren, just barely three months old, smiling in his gray hand-knit bunting. How can this not be what I need?
I can’t help but think of my mother, the great grandmother they never knew, and how desperately she wanted to “make it” to meet Louis. In the last days of hospice how she imagined the baby lying beside her. It wasn’t to be, he came ten days later and was there at the memorial service, held closely by his mother. Now here I am, just thinking of this now as my daughter looks on at me, her mother, handing me Loren to hold on my left side. I don’t want to miss a thing.
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