Local Lifestyle

Friday, Jun 13 2014 09:02 PM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Confronting -- and dodging -- the cancer bullet

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Columnist Valerie Schultz

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By VALERIE SCHULTZ, Contributing columnist

The words in the letter were alarming: another mammogram and an ultrasound were indicated by my recent mammogram. Call this number for an appointment, said the letter. The letter did not say which breast was my potential betrayer.

So when I called the number, that was my first question. The traitor was the left. Well, that's a fine how-de-do, I silently scolded my left breast. After years of nursing four babies with you and your twin sister, letting you lactate all over the place, examining you monthly in the shower, and taking care of our general health, this is how you repay me? With cancer?

Told I could schedule the follow-ups in Kaiser's Lancaster or Panorama City facility, I weighed my options. If I went to Lancaster, I wouldn't have to take a day off from work, but I would not hear the results immediately. Then, if the results dictated a biopsy, I'd have to go to Panorama City anyway. I decided to play the optimistic odds, and made an appointment in Lancaster.

Then I waited for the day to come. And tried to keep calm.

I imagined, against my will, life without my left breast. Would I grieve for her loss like a death? Would I reconstruct her? Long ago, my breasts marked my coming of age as a woman. They have influenced my clothing choices. They have attracted men. They have contributed to pleasure. They have grown with pregnancy, swelled with milk, and then subsided back to smallishness. I have always taken their presence for granted. Now the existence of one was threatened, and I wanted to protect her.

As I contemplated dying, also against my will, my awareness of everything sharpened: how the morning light reflects in the little drops of sprinkler water on the grass out front when I go to get the paper. How good coffee smells. How good my husband's neck smells. How much I adore my daughters. And mostly: how uncomplicated life is when you don't have cancer.

Another mammogram before you've had time to forget your last mammogram is no picnic. You put on a cotton smock that, even though laundered, makes you think of all the women who wore this gown before you and the collective anxiety it represents. A technician then positions you like a contortionist against a machine, smushes the meat of your breast between two plates of glass, and tells you not to breathe while the breast sandwich is dosed with radiation. At least this time it was only one breast.

Next up: the ultrasound. The ultrasound room was dimly lit, which gave it a hushed, almost reverent quality. I sat on the table, waiting for the technician to tap on the door and enter. I studied the photos on the bulletin board, presumably of the technician's children, one of a little girl in a dance costume. I read the stern sign on the wall warning me against asking the technician any questions about what might be detected. My conclusion from past ultrasounds was that these technicians must undergo special training in the ultimate poker face: They reveal nothing. When the technician came in, she squeezed warm goop from a tube onto my breast and began her ultrasound search for what should not be there. I have only had ultrasounds done on my belly before, but the feeling is the same: a device sort of like a microphone/grocery store scanner glides around on the goop, looking for something foreign to photograph. She moved the scanner here and there, here and there. Unlike during pregnancy, there was no echoing sound of a heartbeat filling the room. When she began to press a little more firmly, and proceeded to stop and click on things as though measuring something measurable, I got nervous. She stopped and clicked, stopped and clicked. Then she sent me home, saying I'd learn the verdict in two to three days.

But a weekend was looming. Did she mean business days? I waited through the weekend. I emailed my doctor. No results yet, he said. I emailed again. No answer. A full eight days later, the response came: A benign cyst. The results "appear to be normal." No further testing needed.

By then I had pondered my course of treatment, my waning days of life left, my legacy of unfinished manuscripts and messy closet, and my choice of readings for my funeral Mass. Would my husband remarry? They say that happily married men often do, and quickly. Would my daughters mourn me the way I still mourn my dad? I knew these thoughts were totally over-the-top, completely out-of-line, but still: I couldn't stop them.

The good news made me deliriously happy. I would keep my left breast. I forgave her. I hugged her, so glad that, at least until another mammogram, I am intact. Of course, I am already worried about future mammograms. A recent study shows that the psychological stress of a false positive is extreme, but does not outweigh the importance of continued vigilance against breast cancer. As distressing as the false positive was, I can barely imagine the impact of a true positive. My heart goes out to all those who have endured that nightmare-come-true. I am grateful for the bullet dodged. But I am oh so aware that the cancer bullets are out there, seeking a target.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.

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