I’m sitting in the backseat of my own car on the way back to the Valley from a production of Ragtime at the Berkeley Playhouse when I realize that there is a deep and aching pain in my left breast, and that if I’m being honest with myself, it’s not a new pain. It’s been there for a while—days? Weeks? As long as a month? I’ve had a tenuous grip on time this semester—it’s been marked by readings and book club appearances and physical therapy for my knee and lesson plans and always, the essays waiting to be graded, and when I start to count backwards, thinking of the pain’s first appearance, the days are slippery, time that elusive thing rounding the corner just out of my grasp.
I’m in the car with my husband, a good friend, her friend, and her friend’s girlfriend. In other words: A person I’ve loved and known for more than half of my life, a person I’ve grown close to over the last year, an acquaintance, and a stranger. The realization of the pain, the gnawing sense of its significance, is therefore something I can’t, or anyway don’t, share.
Instead, I sit silently in the backseat, and I can feel myself drawing in, pulling tight, my own body, the bones and sinews and cells that are still Team Paula, closing ranks.
Cancer is when the cells in your body divide uncontrollably. It is, literally, when your own body turns on you.
Certain lifestyle factors make me a risk, as well as certain genetic factors, and it’s impossible not to know this. My familial medical history is a mess, a complicated chart I have to fill out every time I see a different member of the medical profession. I’ve checked the boxes: paternal grandmother: breast, cervical and bone. One paternal cousin. Two maternal aunts. Maternal grandmother, 95 and still sharp as a tack: leukemia, a cancer of the blood.
I have colleagues with cancer. I attended a memorial service last week for a friend who died of lung cancer, a non-smoker, if it matters in this narrative. My father-in-law beat kidney cancer. My brother-in-law is currently in remission.
It is impossible not to know these things at a deep, yes, cellular level.
Still, a week passes before I call to make an appointment for a mammogram. It’s like the concept of Schrodinger’s cat – until I receive a form of medical proof, the cancer both is and isn’t present in my body.
But I’m not sleeping well. My breast aches, and sleeping on my left side is impossible. I’m afraid to take something for the pain, afraid to hide something I’m supposed to see. Night after night I read by the silvery glow of my Kindle, burning through thrillers real and fictional. One dog is snoring on the floor next to the bed, and the other is entwined between my legs, where she has slept every night for the last five years, since we found her on the street and took her into our home. I listen to my husband’s breathing and think that life is such a beautiful thing, so simple and so fucking precious.
The earliest known appearances of cancer, Wikipedia tells me, date to 1600 BC.
Back then, there was no mammography, no white-coated technicians, no HMO or PPO or health savings plan or open enrollment period.
Medical treatments in 1600 BC were probably indistinguishable from torture methods.
During a mammogram, a technician guides you to place your breast and much of the surrounding breast tissue onto a lower plate, and then the upper plate comes down and basically the breast is flattened while an image is taken. If you have not experienced this, or cannot imagine it (perhaps because you do not have breasts), imagine another sensitive area of your body being flattened while you hold your breath and remain immobile, the sides of your dressing gown flapping open, gooseflesh forming on your limbs.
“Hold it, hold it, don’t move, one more second… okay,” the technician says, and the plates pull slowly apart while your body sighs with relief.
This isn’t my first rodeo; I know the drill. Tie the loose flaps of the gown back together and sit in the waiting area with other anxious women and months-old copies of US Weekly and Better Homes and Gardens. Pretend this is a normal thing. Pretend my sore breast isn’t screaming from being compressed into a pancake. Think about something else. Think about how this summer I’m going to sleep in every freaking day if I feel like it.
There’s more to this story… still to be written.
But the most important part is that the mammogram was negative (which in medical terms, of course, is a good thing).
Paula Treick DeBoard