My favorite Christmas Present? A Benign Biopsy

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.

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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.

Why am I so angry?

I have two big fears in life: broken glass and dentists.  If you were at my house for dinner and shattered your glass to bits on my floor, I’d likely tell you it was no problem and move everyone out of the way so I could sweep up the shards of glass like a normal person.  When you left, I’d start my obsessive routine, vigilantly seeking out every foot-embedding tiny invisible knife.  I’d sweep, and vacuum, and mop and vacuum again.  Even with all that, I’d find a lone sliver somewhere in the coming days while I walked through my house in shoes, because I know those evil glass bits are lurking.  My glass fear is one that I can hide from all but my closest relations.

My dentist fear is a whole different level of fear.   I have fainted dead away twice in my life: both at dentist offices.  I have been known to sit in my car and put my head down after an appointment so I don’t faint on the drive home.  I have had 7 crowns, 2 root canals, more fillings than I have teeth and my wisdom teeth out.  The fear that proceeded all of those pales to my current fear:  gum surgery.

It’s a simple surgery.  It’s a graft on one tooth.  I’ll be fine.  I know this in my logical brain.  My emotional brain?  Well, when I went to visit the nice gum doctor and he pulled out his notebook of gum surgery before and after pictures I did not faint and I did not vomit, which I was proud of.  However, when the nice man finished with his horror show of gum pictures and asked me if I had any questions I looked at him, took a deep breath, and burst out crying.  He looked at me like I had leprosy.

See, the dentist fear isn’t controllable.  It makes me faint and cry in public.  This appointment, the one where I learned I was having gum surgery, it was a month ago.  A month I have been dreading the surgery.  A month I’ve been having nightmares about what is going to happen.  A month of seeing his folder of surgical details looking at me.   A month of planning logistics.  My favorite, is that I have to have someone drive me because of my “pre-medication” and the instructions say in bold, “Do not take a taxi while taking your pre-medication.”  This little tidbit might be the only thing keeping me sane.  Is a bus okay?  What about Uber?  A train?  I mean, I can’t drive and in bold cannot take a taxi, but no other forms of transportation are discussed.

So, why am I grouchy?  Because I deal with this kind of irrational fear for a week or two, but after a month  my edges are raw.  I can’t take in any more.  Anything can send me into a tailspin: my daughter asking for an iPad from Santa, my husband lecturing me on her lack of after school activities, deciding if we should order Christmas cards, and holiday family budget discussions.  All of those have sent me into a tailspin.  I have explained my craziness to my husband, but somehow he is incapable of turning off normal topics of conversation this week.  He can’t stop himself from asking, on a lunch date, if I really need him home on Friday, because he’s really busy at work right now.

Last night?  I dreamed I bled out and my family came home to find me dead because I was left alone after gum surgery.  Lordy.  I need to get this procedure over with so I don’t lose my mind.  I’m dreading Thursday, but it can’t come soon enough for the Aftheads.

Ack!  Spider!

 The warm water ran down my back, rinsing the shampoo from my hair.  I turned and picked up my bottle of conditioner.  As I lived it from the shelf an enormous wolf spider fell from the bottle and onto the shower wall.  I jumped, then started processing options.  Squish it.  Bad luck.  Rinse it down the drain.  Dear God, it could land on me or crawl up my foot.

Then I looked closer.  The little guy was slipping on the shower wall, his tiny hairy legs trying to get purchase while his mandibles flexed.  He was scared too.  I sighed and in my very vulnerable state looked for something to catch him in.  Shave gel top?  Perfect.  I coerced the spider into the lid and once he was firmly captured I opened the shower curtain and flung top and spider into the sink.

Once I was dry and covered, I took Mr. Spider in his lid to the front door and set him outside in the plant.  Good luck with the snow tomorrow, and stay out of my bathroom!

Rose Colored Glasses

My friends and family who know me best know that I have two really big fears in life: broken glass, and my lack of self awareness.  The glass fear is just a normal fear, but the lack of self awareness fear impacts every aspect of my life.

We all know someone who thinks they are the most important person on every project they are on, while everyone else is cleaning up the messes they leave behind.  We all know people who think that everyone likes them because they are always the center of every social situation, when really they just push themselves to the center and refuse to give up the position even if others roll their eyes behind their back.

I am terrified of being that person.  I am terrified of not seeing the world as it truly is.  I am terrified of thinking I am smart, talented, attractive, funny, good at my job, a good writer, whatever, when everyone around me exchanges knowing glances.  I am not an extrinsically motivated person.  I do not need others to tell me my worth.  I am an intrinsically motivated person who is afraid that her internal compass is completely out of whack.  Every time I hear someone confidently exclaim their talent I cringe a little.  Not because I don’t agree with them, but because I would never be so bold.

Two things have happened recently that have made me doubt my fears: a mirror at work and some new sunglasses.

There is a mirror in the women’s bathroom at work.  It is a large mirror, almost floor to ceiling, and it is wide.  I think the proportions may have something to do with it’s magic.  I, like most people, am not getting more attractive as I age.  My middle is getting thicker.  My face is getting wrinkles and rounder.  My posture is stooping a bit.  I dress to hide my flaws, but I am not the woman I was twenty years ago, or ten, or five.  However, I am always amazed by my image in this magical mirror.  I don’t look skinny, but I don’t look fat.  I don’t look young, but I don’t look old.  I really look like the best version of me in that mirror.  It might be the light, it might be the mirror or…maybe I really look like that?  Is it bad to think that I really look like that?  Is it bad to think that maybe the mean mirror in my bedroom is the flawed one and what other’s see when I walk around is the work bathroom mirror lady?

My new sunglasses have a rose tint.  They are cute sunglasses, and I do love wearing sunglasses.  My contacts stay dirt free, my sensitive eyes don’t squint, and I have a face that works in sunglasses.  (Oh, that last part was so bold.  Someone is saying, I’ve seen you in sunglasses and…well….I hate to tell you…)  That said, these new sunglasses are extra special because they make the world more beautiful.  They have a rose tint, and when I wear these sunglasses the sky is a blue I’ve never seen before.  It’s darker and deeper than the normal sky and the contrast of the clouds is beautiful.  Any orange or red colored flower or leaf pops with a brightness that is dazzling.  The world is bright and different when I wear these sunglasses.  It’s not how the world really looks, but it is pretty and it makes me happy.  Rose colored glasses really do make the world better.

It’s a slippery slope this false attractive version of the world.  Pretty soon I’ll be waltzing into meetings in too-small hot pants and my sunglasses and proclaiming that I am the smartest person in the room.  If I appreciate the work mirror me and the brilliant orange flowers offset by the deep blue sky, where does it stop?  Or, am I building self awareness appreciating the beauty of the sunglass mirror world, but not accepting it as truth?

Wait a second.  I’ve never looked at myself in the work mirror with my sunglasses on!  Gasp!  What a vision I will be.  I need to go plan my outfit appropriately.  I need something red or orange….and something sky blue.  Maybe hot pants?