Sunday, April 1, 2012

Breast Cancer - My personal journey to the heart of Mordor

Breast Cancer! Two words I never expected to hear. My family had a history of leukemia, and I was convinced I would die of this, but the very idea of breast cancer was unimaginable.

They were words even my doctors avoided saying out loud.

I believed I had one whack of an infection. It wasn't possible for tumors to grow that fast...was it? I had felt a hardening in my right breast at the end of January. I put it down to hormones (they rule the body)! There was a slight discharge from the nipple - nothing I was overly concerned about. But less than two weeks later, a lump the size of a lemon grew over a weekend. That got my attention.

When I went for my mammogram, (just in case this wasn’t an infection) no one was prepared for what happened. The attendant took the first image squeezing my right breast from the top down on a glass plate. I didn’t look down until she came beside me whispering, “Oh, my gosh! I’m so sorry if I hurt you.” There was a pool of blood covering the glass. The young woman began freaking out. She moved me away, gave me a clean towel for my breast and began disinfecting the area as if I had AIDS.

There was one more image to be taken and as she moved me into position we both realized this would not be good. She asked me to hold the towel against my breast for as long as possible. But the metal plates, squeezing my breast sideways, were brutal. It left another, larger pool of blood, on the floor.

She was apologizing, cleaning, disinfecting, changing her gloves again and again. I found myself trying to help her calm down. I hoped the lump was just filled with blood and that they had squeezed it out. But as my hand instinctively went to my breast, it was still there...larger than life.

We looked at the mammogram together and she indicated translucent white threads that filled almost a third of my breast.

“We need to have a better look at what’s going on in there,” she said.

By the time I got to the ultrasound, word about me had spread everywhere. As I bared my breast so the technician could put the thick gel all over it, I explained there might be some bleeding.

“Oh, I’ve already heard all about it,” she retorted, like it had been broadcast over a loudspeaker. “None of the doctors have ever seen anything like this.”

That stopped me cold. Fear crept in. These doctors worked with women who had breast cancer day in and day out. None of them had ever seen this before? What was I dealing with?

As I was puzzling over these thoughts she clucked her tongue. 
“What do you see?” I ignorantly asked.

“I’m not allowed to tell you anything,” she said. “The doctor will talk to you afterward.”

But she became kinder, letting me know I was doing really well to stay so still. Then she looked at my chart and said, “You mentioned this lump grew in a matter of days. You were kidding about that, right?”

I stared straight at her, “No I wasn't. It grew in a weekend.” She just shook her head and clucked her tongue again. 

It was then I knew. At that moment I began praying for strength, and courage; for no tears in the face of this. The world was spinning the wrong way and I just wanted to get off. When she began taking images in my right armpit, I closed my eyes and prayed harder.

After the doctor had walked in, said “Looks like a suspicious lump,” and abruptly walked out, I asked the woman to show me the images and tell me what made this tumor different from a cyst. She was happy to do so and explained that a cyst would have been dark, even at the core. This tumor was translucent with beads that looked like pearls around the edge. Beautiful but deadly. It was sobering.

I walked outside in a daze and called Peter. He was in a jovial mood asking how it went.

“Not good,” I said. “I have breast cancer.” It was the first time those words had been uttered.

“WHAT? Seriously?”
When he arrived, a few minutes later, there were tears in his eyes.

We hugged a long time. Later, he told me he would love me with or without breasts, and with or without hair. I had married the right guy! I knew that all along of course, but his response, in a moment like this, spoke volumes about his character and about our relationship.

My GP called the next day, after she received a copy of the ultrasound, and matter-of-factly said, “So, you’ve got cancer. We need to get some more tests done quickly.”

Chest x-rays, a bone scan and abdominal ultrasound were scheduled for next week. They would all be on the same day. They wanted to see how aggressive the cancer was and how far it had spread.

I was stunned. Trying to grapple with this diagnosis, that nobody would admit to until I had a biopsy, turned my world upside down. I would never be the same again and my life was about to head into uncharted waters.

Peter had a photo assignment and wanted me to come along. I was swamped with journalistic stories and normally I would have stayed home and worked. But trying to concentrate was impossible and I just wanted to be with him. I needed to enjoy some time with the man I loved more than life itself.

I always believed Peter was strong. Peter copes well with anything (except computer problems). Peter has walked me through 25 years of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I knew that if I died, it would be tough on him, but he would cope. I didn’t think it would be devastating to him at all.

But when I saw how wrecked he was by all of this, I knew I had underestimated the impact my death would have on him. He was rocked to the core.

When he was working on his last few shots, I sat in the car watching the spectacular sunset, enjoying every moment of it.

When he stashed all his gear and sat down, he took one look at the fogged up windows and joked, “Were you breathing?” I smiled weakly at him and replied, “In a few months you won’t have to worry about that anymore.”

We just looked at each other smiling at the black humor, but realizing this could very well be our new reality.

Thus began my trip to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom, carrying this heavy burden around my neck. Soon I would tell my family and friends and this motley group would join me in my journey, coming to my aid in ways I couldn't even imagine... 


  1. Thank you for this post, Doris. I've been thinking about you and praying for you (and Peter, too). May the God of all wisdom and power give you the strength to take one step after another on this journey.

  2. May the force be with you!
    XO, Lorna

  3. Very moving post! Praying all goes well with your treatment.

  4. You didn’t think Peter would be devastated?? Are you kidding?? You underestimate your value and impact on those around you, my friend!
    We’re routing for you.
    And we serve a mighty God.

  5. Kelley, thanks for your prayers for both me and Peter. This has really affected him more than I knew it would. Seriously, Joy, he just seemed so strong and able to cope with anything including 26 years now of watching me and helping me deal with CFS.

    Lorna - I hope the Force is always with me. I know the Spirit certainly is!

    Alison - You know what it is like to go through suffering too. Thanks for your comments and prayers!