My mom insisted on coming, but I thought she was overreacting. The doctors were simply going to tell me the same thing the doctors in the Philippines told me, “It looks like a benign tumor, go for a check up in 6-12 months, besides, you’re too young to have cancer and you have no family history of breast cancer.” It’s true, I was only 34 and no one in my entire family had ever been diagnosed with breast cancer, so I was confident I didn’t have it either. I just had a weird lump in my right breast that I happened to find during one of my sporadic breast self-exams, which I only did about 2 or 3 times a year when I would occasionally pay attention to reminders I would see. I always expected not to find anything, so it was a bit alarming that 3 months prior suddenly something there, but then again I’ve heard our bodies can change in your 30’s. It’s probably a cyst or fibroid. We do not have breast cancer in this family never mind people having cancer before age 40.
It was a crisp fall day as we set out for the 1.5 hour drive to hospital in my mom’s grey Toyota matrix with missing hubcaps and a rosary swaying from the rear-view mirror. All I could think about was the 3 month trip through Southeast Asia I was about in embark on in 2 weeks with my sister. I had been waiting so long for this trip to celebrate completing 2 years in the Peace Corps serving in the Philippines. And I was excited to spend time with Val as we haven’t always had the best relationship, we had clashing personalities growing up. She was bossy, overbearing and a bully at times, I was overly sensitive, angry, and unpredictably moody, but as we’ve gotten older, we’ve both worked really hard on recognizing our faults and trying to correct them. This trip was going to be a defining moment for us and I was really looking forward to having a sisterly bond with her. Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. Besides, how could a modern, state-of-the-art hospital in the Philippines with a breast cancer center that had equipment I’ve yet to see here in the US be wrong. That’s all they did was breast cancer. They know if it is cancer or not and they told me it wasn’t. But my mom, being the nurse that she is, insisted I go for a second opinion.
In the waiting room, I was thinking about all the last minute shopping I was going to do in Burlington. Brandon, a town of 4,000 people had little to offer when it came to travel equipment. Most people in my home town have never left the country except for the mandatory 6th grade trip to Montreal at the end of the school year. I hadn’t waited more than 10 minutes before the nurse called my name, showed me to the sonogram room where they were prepared to image the mass in my breast. This mass was about the size of a quarter and felt like someone had implanted a smooth round river stone under my skin. It didn’t hurt, it didn’t move. It was just there and it was odd.
The technician came in holding my chart open looking at imagines I had sent from the Philippines and without looking up at me says, “OK, they wrote down a size and location of the tumor in the report, but I do not see it on these images.” She then looks up at me and says, “Can you show me where it is?” I point to the location and she squirts some gel on it and presses the wand to my breast and quietly says, “oh, yes, there it is.” Then why didn’t it show up on the images from the Philippines I wanted to ask, but I was afraid. Did that state-of-the-art hospital miss something? A wave of doubt slowly started creeping up on me. She points out that the mass is solid, and that there is blood flow to it. At that time, I didn’t know what that meant. Of course I knew it was solid, I could feel that, and I assumed all tissue had blood flow to it. I didn’t know that blood flow was a big red cancer flag. She continues the imaging slowing working away from the tumor to the rest of the breast and stops in a spot almost in my armpit. It was the same spot that I was called back to have mammorgramed twice in the Philippines because they told me they had a blurry image. I asked her why she stopped. “I’m looking at your lymph-nodes and they look enlarged.”, she replies. She then continues to explain she’s going to image my other breast even though it wasn’t part of the originally plan for this second opinion. Thankfully that side was clear. When the sonogram was over, she shows me to a little waiting room where other women were sitting in gowns, most years older than me. She told me that she was going to consult with the radiologist, but that they would most likely want to get a mammogram today as well. Again, not part of the original plan. They send a nurse out to get my mother to sit with me. The wave of doubt is now becoming stronger as it pushes the excitement for my upcoming trip out of the way.
As soon the mammogram was over and I was dressed, they showed my mom and I into a little room to wait for the radiologist. You could tell they tried to make the room feel comforting. There was no hospital equipment, but instead a love-seat, a couple of nice chairs and soft lighting. There as a tissue box over on the side table. I felt anything but comfort being in that room. The radiologist didn’t waste any time explaining to me they want to do a biopsy, not only on the tumor, but on my lymph-nodes as they suspect there are at least 2 tumors present there. She then said, “I know it will be a few days before we know, but I need you to start preparing that this is probably cancer.”