It all started innocently enough–with a nondescript letter from the hospital where I get my annual mammograms and ultrasounds (dense breasts, anyone?). It was included in the stack of mail that accumulated during our December pilgrimage to my sister’s ski house in Vermont (Christmas Day on the empty slope–a gift to the Jews, even if there are no available Chinese restaurants for dinner). The envelope’s only distinguishing characteristic was a sticker attached to the front. “Not a Bill,” it read. “Please Open.”
Inside was a form letter summoning me back to the hospital for additional scans of my breast. After consulting with the aforementioned-sister, who also happens to be an OB-GYN and multiple cancer survivor, we decided that there was no cause for alarm. I hadn’t received any ominous phone calls from my doctor. The follow-up appointment they scheduled was weeks away. And plenty of women are called back for additional views.
So I resumed my normal routine without panicking. Laundry. Lunchbox packing. Writing. Trips to Trader Joe’s. Schlepping to after-school activities. Rudimentary dinner preparations. The joys of typical suburban life.
On the duly appointed day, at the duly appointed hour, I returned to the hospital where the mammogram and ultrasound technicians both assured me that these follow-ups were no big deal. Calmly, I waited and watched, remembering how ultrasounds were once glimpses of a life growing inside me, instead of precautions against wayward cells doing the same. It wasn’t until the radiologist came into the room and instantly zeroed in on the troublesome area that I began to worry. “You need a biopsy,” she told me. “As soon as possible.”
Well, as soon as possible meant two days later. A day when my son’s school was closed for staff development and I’d set up a playdate that he’d been eagerly anticipating. Initially, I was tempted to postpone the biopsy. After all, doesn’t every Jewish mother put her child’s wishes first? But then I realized that, like it or not, I should take care of myself.
And so, an appointment was scheduled. I was given instructions. And, without my realizing it, I was thrust into the world of possible breast cancer.
People began sharing their private victories over cancer with me. My vocabulary expanded to include terms like core biopsy, irregular margins and BI-RADS 5. I learned the value of ravioli-shaped ice packs (they fit perfectly under a sports bra) and a nurse’s warm hand, holding my clammy one, as the radiologist poked and poked and poked those stubbornly dense breasts.
The kids knew that something was up. I had no choice but to tell my son why his play date was moved to his friend’s house and supervised by a high school babysitter. So, I explained, Mommy has something in her breast. The doctors don’t know what it is. They need to find out.
Unfortunately, my kids were already acquainted with the concept of cancer. They’d heard how it took their Poppa when he was too young. They lived through my absence when I camped out with my sister during her double mastectomy. And they remembered how I played Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach regularly and loudly during her illness.
When my sister was diagnosed, I bought her a bracelet with “Shema” engraved on it. I sang the aforementioned Mi Shebeirach over and over. I prayed for her health. It was easy to ask God to heal her. When it was my turn to ask God for healing, asking was harder. I felt like I’d already asked for so much. For my children to be healthy. For our planes to land safely. For my stories to get published. I was already so blessed. Who was I to ask for my breasts to be cancer-free?
But I did ask, urgently and often. I resumed my routine of singing Modeh Ani with my little one every morning. We started attending Friday night services. I gratefully accepted prayers across the religious spectrum—from my daughter’s Muslim preschool teacher to the Irish mammogram technician. All while continuing to pack lunches, drive to swim lessons and attend preschool board meetings. Yes, I was waiting for my biopsy results, but life goes on.
Finally, after an eternity, or at least the weekend, the results were in: benign. Hallelujah.
To my son, who overheard me yell the results down to my husband, this episode was over. To the doctors, not so much. There was still that pesky “highly suspicious” ultrasound. And so the saga continued. We saw a breast surgeon. And learned more scary words (“sentinel lymph nodes,” anyone?). I considered pre-emptive mastectomies and underwent a second biopsy. And waited some more.
After several more business days, I was thrilled to get another benign report, accompanied by a rational explanation for the scary ultrasound. But, just to be sure, the mass still needed to come out.
And so, outpatient surgery at a cancer center that I hope did not foretell my future. My mensch-of-a-husband read me short stories to distract me after an unpleasant needle localization (if you don’t already know what it is, you don’t want to ask) and brought me matzo ball soup, a pastrami sandwich and sour pickles for dinner.
The doctor feels confident that everything will be okay. Now it’s just the waiting part–another five business days for the final pathology report.
The kids–they’re doing okay. My daughter and the babysitter made me a beautiful banner for my return from the hospital. And my son had a grand old time on his playdate with the same boy he’d been with during my first biopsy (full circle).
And me, I still feel blessed. Even if I am definitively thrust into the world of cancer, I have learned that I have the community and strength and faith to get through it. And if it was only a false alarm, well then, I’ll just thank God once again.