From the category archives:



Sunday dinner with extended family: Sister- and brother-in-law celebrating the return of a lost son. He is now home after two years in Japan, teaching and one year in Vietnam, doing what? We are about to find out. Luke is sensitive, intelligent, and well-informed, I can’t wait to hear about his Asian adventures. Yet on the 10-minute car ride over to their house I feel restless and “antsy.”  My mind is pre-occupied with cancer.

After dinner, we linger around the long dining room table and contemplate Luke’s travel stories while we watch the candles burn down and  sip the last of the wine. I glance at Ellen’s enamel painting of the fruit blossoms, and wonder if the enamel- and paint fumes were what brought on the breast cancer that killed her. She left behind a middle school child and a high school student. I, if it comes to that, will leave behind three college educated, adult children, all gainfully employed with their own health-insurance, cars, and homes.

Still, I feel I have to tell everyone. It would be too awkward to call around the next day, or, God forbid, send a group email. I assume, my cancer announcement will no longer ruin the evening.

Every one reacts calmly and appropriately. They show concern, but don’t seem spooked. Nobody tries to gloss over or dismiss it. Even the family member who seems to most enjoy  “organ recitals” does not share her archive of maladies, not even those with favorable outcomes.

Yet, that night I feel anxious. I sleep poorly in a mix of sugar high from the dessert and the angst of what my diagnosis, now four days old, really means. I am awake at 2.30 A.M; I listen to the steam whistle blow as the train rumbles through the city of Smyrna, or was the train down in Vinings?  I am awake at 3.30 A.M, then again at 4.30 A.M. The alarm goes off at 5.30 A.M. and rescues me from my insomnia, but I am so exhausted I can barely toss the covers aside to climb out of bed.



On my drive home from the office mulling over my new diagnosis, I try to think of names of doctors I can ask. My friend B’s husband is a vascular surgeon, he ought to know. But they have left for some medical conference on Corsica. My friend Elise’s husband Dan is a doctor. He teaches at the medical school. I have some hazy notion he works in OR which would have to mean he is either a surgeon or an anesthesiologist, what else does one do in an operating room? I realize I am woefully illiterate about anything medicine.

One person I do not call is my husband.  He is still in San Francisco and will not land till midnight. There is no point to frighten him just before he boards a cross-country flight. Could there be anything worse than sitting trapped in an airplane for 4 hours to mull over one’s wife’s cancer diagnosis?

I also don’t give any consideration to what might be the best hospital or which hospital is in my “network.” In fact, I don’t give insurance or benefits or out of pocket costs a thought.  I only have one bee in my bonnet: I want a surgeon to remove my cancerous hazelnut right NOW. I scroll my cell phone for my friend Elise’s phone number.  Her husband answers and tells me they are both about to board a flight for Ireland.

“But Elise is standing right by my side.”

“I actually I am calling you,” I tell him. “I need some advice. I need the name of a good surgeon. I was just diagnosed with breast cancer.”

The last sentence sounds surreal as the words tumble out. I feel as if I am acting in some drama where my only line is: “I was just diagnosed with breast cancer.”

Dan calmly says: “Oh Elise had that experience, I don’t know if you were aware.”

Really? No, I had no idea. How long had I known her? Seven years? Longer?

“The first person who comes to my mind,” Dan continues, “is Dr. Guru. When I am back in a week, I’ll help you cut through the hospital bureaucracy and red tape. I will let you talk to Elise now.”

“I had cancer when I was in law school.” she tells me. “My two children were still in elementary school. I waited for weeks to have her surgery so the kids could be in summer camp during my convalescence. This is the worst time you know,” Elise assures me. “This time of waiting, not knowing what they will find and what will happen. But you will be just fine.”

Elise tells me she had a mastectomy, no chemo. She sounds so calm and reasonable that I become calm too. Clearly Elise has made it – it’s been 20 years since her harrowing experience. I thank her and wished them both a great vacation.

My own vacation plans just evaporated. My “vacation” will be spent waiting – waiting for schedules, waiting for procedures, waiting for test results, waiting for phone calls, waiting in waiting rooms. Crap!


The Pretty Useless Screening Mammogram

June 17, 2009

-If you have discovered a lump, says the scheduler at the Breast “Care” Center, then you cannot make an appointment. -Uh? -You need a diagnostic mammogram, and your doctor, not you need to schedule it. Otherwise the insurance company won’t pay. -But I don’t have a doctor – yet, I only have a check up […]

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