Monday, April 4, 2011

The C Word

The real irony in this piece is that I wrote it nearly a year before my surgery for ovarian cancer. All those mental gymnastics were just practice. A further irony: there is a link between ovarian and breast cancer; having one makes you more susceptible to having the other. I never miss my mammograms now.

Between the time I listened to the voice mail from the woman at the mammogram center and the time I actually talked to her on the phone, I had breast cancer. Her message asked me to call her but gave no details. What else could I conclude? Clearly, she didn’t want to tell my answering machine that the spot they thought they’d first seen, the one that had required a second mammogram, really was a spot—and not just a spot, but a symptom of something in Stage IV and metastasized already; they were so sorry and why hadn’t I had regular mammograms?
            That imagined outcome made perfect sense. With every passing year, I am more likely to be among the women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, or something else that will require doctors, hospitals, surgery: in short, all of the things I’ve been assiduously avoiding since my orthopedic released me from his care nearly forty years ago.
            I’d had the mammogram, my first in nine years, only so I could tell that dear subset of friends, The Worriers, that I’d duly had my breast tissue painfully smashed and that there was, as I’d maintained all along, nothing wrong. I like being right, and I like nothing being wrong. But the radiologists wanted a better view of the right breast; there was a spot they simply weren’t sure of. I told only my priest, who was good enough to ask about it a week later. The second set of mammograms was more painful, and the technician didn’t see anything. Two weeks had passed with no report; no news is good news, I’d figured.
            In real or imagined trouble, the mind works quickly. After listening to the ambiguous message, I’d figured out how to keep the cats with me during my slow and painful dying, lamented the moves of several friends who wouldn’t be near to help me, and figured out which new projects I might still accomplish. I considered not paying my taxes. I thought about that lump sum sitting for my retirement, and how many children it could feed, how I needed to make sure that the beneficiary was clearly stated. I thought of one of Garrison Keillor’s monologues in which the woman says to God, “This sort of irony is beneath you.” It was the afternoon before Thanksgiving, a day of beautiful snow and someone else cooking for me.
            I finally talked to the nurse and discovered that to make triple sure the spot was nothing, they wanted yet another look. Beyond cursing both their inefficiency and their thoroughness, there was nothing I could do but schedule the appointment and scream a little.
            As I scanned my life and my choices during those two hours between phone calls, I found I had no regrets. I was most thankful that I had risked my financial soul and quit a real job to be a freelancer. I was thrilled to have a book coming out, even if it might be my only one. I was glad to have worshipped with a few people who were drawn, even on a cold Wednesday morning, by the beauty of liturgy, the need for a bit of bread and wine that anticipated greater feasting tomorrow and hereafter.
            Tuesday night was our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service, which my church hosted. There and at the Wednesday morning Eucharist I heard the Gospel reading for Thanksgiving, from Matthew 6, the Sermon on the Mount, the text clearly fitting for my circumstance. “Take no thought for your life…”

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