Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sisterhood Of the Travelling Pink Paper Gowns


Is there a more wonderful word in the English medical language? As I write this, sipping some iced tea on a day all where all is right with the world, I think not.

I have a confession. As a young female lymphoma survivor, I have had moments of something like resentment in the month of October when pink ribbons become as prominent as Halloween decorations. I've known great women who have battled breast cancer, and a close friend of my sister's lost the fight just a year after my own cancer war, so I've always understood the importance of breast cancer awareness. I've just been a little curious as to why we spend a whole month talking about it, and buying pink travel mugs, socks, reusable grocery bags, etc. when so many women deal with so many other types of cancer.

Until now.

I like to think I am brave. Having been through cancer hell once, I've liked to think that, should I get cancer again, I could put on a courageous face and give it my all.

And yet all bets were off last week when I found myself on a table at the local hospital's breast center, confronted with a biopsy of two suspicious areas in my right breast. I was terrified in a way I wasn't even when I had cancer. There's something so scary about a lump in your breast; I didn't realize how attached I am to the girls.

In many ways, this cancer scare was different than any other health threat I've ever had. When I went through cancer treatment, the whole experience seemed so sanitized, so impersonal. Not to say that I wasn't treated well by my doctors and nurses; I was. But it seemed like I was just one of many, just another machine rolling down the assembly line of chemo and radiation.

Perhaps because women have such strong feelings about their breasts, and because breast cancer can permanently and catastrophically change one (0r two) of the most sensual and idealized parts of a woman's body, everything at the breast center is designed to be calming, reassuring, and personal. I've never been treated so well in a medical setting; I felt like these women really cared.

Probably because they do. Both of the techs assisting the radiologist during the procedure said they had been on that very table themselves.

"It's really different to be the one getting the biopsy," one said. "I know exactly what you're going through and know that no matter what I tell you, you are going to be afraid. But we have every reason to believe that these lumps are benign."

And, thank God, they are. Or were; they disappeared from the ultrasound screen as they were drained, which is one of the most relieving things I've ever witnessed. I no longer have masses (or cysts, as they turned out to be) to worry about.

I was told before the procedure that 80% of the lumps found are ultimately benign. That's reassuring, especially when you end up learning you fall into that 80%. But the techs said they do these biopsies all day. I was in and out in an hour, so I would guess that means they do half a dozen or so on a given day. If my math is right, one out of every five biopsies comes back not benign.

So every day these women deliver bad news.

I was thinking about all this as I changed out of my pink gown in a pink dressing room and was led out by a nurse wearing a pink ribbon pin, a nurse who had kept her hand reassuringly on my shoulder through the entire procedure. In the waiting room were other women, of various ages, colors, and sizes who were waiting to go in. Some were getting their annual mammograms and will hear from their doctor that everything is normal and to come back next year.

Others are going to hear there's a lump, and like me, they'll learn after a nerve-wracking few days that everything is just fine.

But some are going to have their lives changed forever.

At some point in our lives, every woman is going to have to stare breast cancer in the face. It could be that it's going to happen to a mother, sister, or best friend. Or it could be that we will have our own scare and find ourselves in a pink gown watching as a doctor pulls back on a syringe that contains nothing malignant. Or we could find ourselves fighting breast cancer with all we've got, watching as the treatment changes our bodies.

To that I say: bring on the pink.


Robert K. said...

Glad to hear the lump was just a cyst!

Karen said...

Yay!! So glad to hear that! :)