My new favorite word is benign. Say it with me: benign. It’s a little choppy and doesn’t really flow off the tongue; there may be too many syllables for the length. It wasn’t a word I’d given much thought before last week. In fact, if you’d asked me before that, I would have said I liked the word malignant better. It has a force to it, a weight, and a power that is scary as heck when it might be related to your own body.
Last Friday I was presented with that glorious word, benign. All day I sat by the phone waiting for my biopsy results. Before the biopsy, the mammography center had warned that I might not hear the results until after Christmas, but the surgical center seemed certain that I’d hear on Friday. My husband and I had discussed the uncertainty and decided that if the sample was cancerous we didn’t want to hear until after Christmas. I rationalized that I could fake my way through the holiday not knowing, but would likely ruin everyone’s Christmas if I did know. However, when I discussed my plan with the biopsy nurse practitioner and doctor they looked at me like I was crazy. “I mean, I’ll have questions and I’ll need to know what the plan is if it isn’t benign.” I told them. They assured me that there would be a plan – nay a whole team ready – if the sample was not benign so I capitulated and agreed that they could call, which seemed to satisfy their need for procedure and protocol. (“Not benign” is such a stupid euphemism.)
My arms were deep in the sink, soaking my brother’s Christmas scarf for blocking when my daughter ran in, “Mom, your phone is ringing.” I dripped while sprinting into the study and grabbed my phone. Better to ruin my phone with soggy hands then miss this call. They were going to tell me if the turtle ripped from my body was a good turtle or an evil turtle.
There is no situation that is beyond the absurd in my life. While I was laying face down on a surgical table, my clamped and bleeding boob protruding through a hole, the doctor put up the image of the sample taken from my flesh. It looked exactly like a turtle with a bulbous middle, a head, and four smaller blob appendages. Of course, I shared my interpretation of this image with my medical team. Appeasing me, they pointed out the lighter squiggles on one turtle foot. That was the sample they wanted. The worrying parts of the turtle were now outside of me ready to be analyzed and tested.
The call had no preamble before the nurse practitioner – the one who convinced me that I wanted to talk to her no matter what she was going to tell me – said, “I have good news for you. Your sample is benign.”
That moment is clear in my head. As unclear as the medical guidance given to me by my doctor during the biopsy procedure. He was very kind, but the nurse assigned to me seemed hellbent to ensure any medical information provided was covered up by cheery banter. She entered with the doctor and was “there for me” in some role perfectly clear to her. At the moment the biopsy was about to happen the doctor said, “I’m going to take the sample now. You might feel…” but whatever I might have felt was drowned out by the nurse screaming in my face, “WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?” I still don’t know what I was supposed to feel, but Nurse Rose knows I like sugar cookies the best. Her question wasn’t a total non sequitur. She’d drowned out the anesthetic information by asking me my plans for the day, which involved making Christmas cookies.
Sure, maybe making Christmas cookies they day you get a biopsy might seem a little strange, but that’s what happens when you get an irregular mammogram less than two weeks before Christmas. My brother’s scarf was carried with me from waiting room to procedure room to waiting room the day of the biopsy, because I had knitting to finish before the holiday. My potential cancer worries were all wrapped up with holiday concerns – pun intended.
The decision to have the mammogram right before Christmas was an odd one for me. In a flash of uncharacteristic optimism I took the appointment offered because, after my first irregular mammogram in June, my doctor and I looked at the films together. She’d assured me that the worrying spots had been on my mammogram in 2015, disappeared in 2016 and were back in 2017. She said it was probably nothing, but cautioned me that I needed to go every 6 months, just in case.
At the time, the mammogram didn’t seem like it was “just in case,” but in hindsight the lady doing my mammogram got less and less chatty as she took more and more pictures. Since this was my first followup appointment, I just figured she didn’t find my demeanor charming. Or maybe she was also unsure how she was going to get everything done before Christmas. When she asked me to sit in the waiting room I didn’t wonder, but when she asked me to come back into the bowels of the mammography center I got concerned. She led me into a dimly lit room with faux leather chairs around a small conference table and I panicked. The room looked exactly like the special room my vet has for euthanasia appointments. When the radiologist arrived and didn’t bring me a warm blanket and a cocktail of life-ending drugs it was a relief, until he suggested a biopsy.
The warm blanket came right before they strapped my legs to the biopsy table and raised me into the air on the worst amusement park ride ever. Nurse Rose did not find my amusement park ride jokes funny as the table made herkey jerks and my boob was smashed and smushed and poked. I feel like being “there for me” should have involved laughing at my jokes.
The benign call ended awkwardly. When asked if I had any questions I mentioned that I thought the incision was bleeding more than it should. The nurse practitioner seemed taken aback, like the invitation for questions was rhetorical. I was supposed to just hang up in a blaze of relief and joy. When I told her that the bloody spot under my bandage was much bigger than a dime or nickel she said, “Well, if it’s still a problem on Tuesday give us a call” then said goodbye. My Christmas cancer worry was replaced by a smaller bleeding-out worry. Nothing I couldn’t fake my way through, but enough to make me drift off to sleep with images of bloody wounds dancing in my head. (Spoiler alert, I haven’t bled out yet.)
When people ask me what I got for Christmas this year I go blank. I got benign, but almost everyone doesn’t know I had a biopsy. A few friends and family members along with an astute coworker who caught me at a bad time know, but I didn’t tell anyone else. When was the right time? During the band concert? The school holiday party? During our work calendar exchange? At my friend’s dad’s funeral? Had the ending been different I would have had to tell, but now I’m just awkwardly hugging on one side and randomly asking people to carry heavy things for me.
Along with my constant appreciation of the absurd are my rose colored glasses. Even after my Magic 8 Ball told me I didn’t have cancer (this was before the actual diagnosis) I couldn’t help planning for the worst. The silver lining of the cancer scare was my evaluation of the things I was afraid of losing: my family, my friends, my book, my stories and – surprising to me – my Master’s degree. In the week between mammogram and biopsy I planned how to transition my work role to others, write my book at chemo so my mom could read it, and make countless videos and knit objects for my kid to remember me by. (Because a box of hand-knits is almost the same as having a mom, right?) I also hoped I would feel well enough during treatment to go to school. It’s interesting the things that rise to important when you are considering th….
“WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?!?!?!”
Now when things start to get serious around here, you’ll understand why I’m screaming cookie gibberish. My surgical pamphlet tells me that one in eight women develop breast cancer and four in five biopsies like mine end up benign. That means many women are having these procedures and it’s all okay, but for each four of me, one other woman is dealing with all the fears I had the past two weeks. If you find yourself in this same uncomfortable situation, my hope is that your turtles turn out benign and your warm blankets just make your uncomfortable amusement park ride a little bit more pleasant.