I have a lump on my right breast. It might be benign or it may be cancerous. I had to type the word “benign” before the “C” word, as if to convince myself that it was second in line, inconsequential, a low probability, a word in the distance.
I discovered the nodule on May 16 while taking a bath. As I washed my chest area, I felt a marble size hardness on the lateral left side. I had never felt a breast lump on myself or anyone else. It’s not at all good when your nodule is “palpable” from the outside. Cancer, if that is what it is, works cunningly from the inside out. Detection and treatment often work more slowly and gropingly from the outside in. As a nurse, I’ve always been aware of the possibility of a diagnosis of cancer, but it was something that happened to someone else–a lover, a patient, a friend, or a person of high profile.
There is an automatic course of events which follow after one finds a lump. The cycle begins with panic and shock. An appointment with the internist is next even though you know how they will respond. I hoped to hear, “that doesn’t feel like a lump we need to be concerned about” or “it’s probably a cyst.” But instead my doctor took his hand and felt around the area in question and said, “You need to follow up with a mammogram and ultrasound early next week.”
The radiologist at the breast center came into the exam room after viewing my results and told me, “It’s definitely a nodule, not a cyst, but it looks benign. I’d advise you to wait six months and repeat the ultrasound.” That is the type of response I needed to hear, the kind of wishful diagnostic statement that makes you clap your hands, stamp your feet and say, “Hallelujah, thank you God.” But at the same time I wondered if it was prudent to wait six months.
“Why do you think it’s benign?” I asked him. I needed to know what he based his assumption on.
“We have certain criteria we go by and your nodule doesn’t appear to be cancer,” he said as he handed me his written report which reflected those exact words. Probably benign. Advised patient to wait six months and repeat ultrasound. I wanted to know more about the word “criteria” but it seemed to be either a secret he couldn’t or preferred not to divulge.
It was the beginning of summer and I wanted to believe what he said. I wasn’t going to dispute or examine the criteria with him, as if I was his colleague looking at a case study. I’d been living with my boyfriend for the past six months and I didn’t want anything to interfere with the relationship, no problems to complicate things. I felt as if I deserved to enjoy my new life to the fullest: sexy seaside vacations, fancy dinners out with friends, trips to Napa and New York, and building merging family relationships. There was no place for surgical procedures, incisions, scars, a possible mastectomy, radiation, catheters, chemo were all to be avoided—the regiment that follows with most breast cancer diagnosis. I’m a nurse. I know too much.
I keep the newly discovered lump from my boyfriend, family, and friends. I don’t want to think about it and besides, I knew exactly how they would react. They would tell me to have it biopsied, no matter what anyone said. Then they would listen to my lame excuses and beg me to be sensible. They would ask me what I would tell them to do under the circumstances. So I avoid that conversation.
It’s been three years since my husband died from cancer. I’m just beginning to live again and I’m not going to let a tiny lump spoil things. Not now. Not ever. So I’ll continue my life as if nothing has changed. But every time I undress or shower, I’m aware of this tiny foreign object inside of me. I find myself sliding my fingertips over it at night, hoping my boyfriend won’t accidently feel it while we’re making love, hoping it might shrink into nothing after a month or two. Hoping it might disappear as suddenly as it appeared.