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Her breast biopsy took more than tissue

December 28, 2009|By Annie Lehmann

"Great job," the nurse said as she helped me off the procedure table.

But what I had actually done well, unbeknown to her, was suppress my desire to return the stomach punch I'd gotten earlier in the week when I was told that I needed a breast biopsy.

I am religious about my annual mammograms, having too many friends with wigs in their closets and pink ribbons on their lapels. But within a three-day period, I'd gone from having a routine yearly screening to hearing that I had "suspicious calcifications." The staff radiologist pointed to the opaque sprinkling on the black-and-white images and recommended that I get a core biopsy right away. Though I heard the words, I focused on the rhythmic rush of blood I felt with each beat of my heart.

"Eighty-five percent of such biopsies turn out to be nothing of note," he assured me -- yet I couldn't stop thinking about the 15% that turn out to be time bombs.

When it comes to breast cancer, I have always been told that my risk factors were low. My familial history is negligible; I exercise regularly, eat plenty of well-washed fruits and vegetables, do not drink, smoke or indulge in recreational drugs. My one vice, candy-coated chocolate peanuts, is not on breast-care questionnaires. But the callback proved that healthful living provides no guarantees.

One in seven women gets breast cancer. At first I had a hard time believing the high odds, but then I did the math. Even within my small circle, that statistic made sense.

The following morning I sat in the waiting room along with more than a dozen bra-less women in hospital-laundered cotton gowns. I wanted to ask if, like me, they were all "callbacks," but no one spoke. Old and young, big and small, the women passed the time watching an overly cheery talk show host chatter on a large-screen television or reading current but worn magazines.

When my name was called, I followed the nurse, who was sweet but practiced in her remarks. Multiple images of the body part that had nourished two of my three babies were posted on a large light box. A machine underneath the table would extract pieces of tissue from the breast in question and leave behind a titanium clip to mark the sites. Being the type of patient who always looks away at blood draws, I was grateful for the barrier.

I left the building aware that the hardest part, the wait for an answer, remained.

I went home determined to occupy myself with the housework I find distracting and comforting. I'd defrosted a chicken for dinner and started cleaning the bird, aware that no matter the outcome of the morning's test something had forever changed. I pulled off the skin, and cut through the ligatures with a new respect for errant fragments and bloodied parts that lay nestled beneath bone cavities.

Small things take on big meaning when you feel your life is in the balance. I knew that the mundane task of cleaning a chicken, something I'd done thousands of times before, would never be the same.

Lehmann, a freelance writer, is the author of an autism memoir, "The Accidental Teacher: Life Lessons From My Silent Son," published by University of Michigan Press. Her cancer was caught in the earliest stages by the mammogram, and she is now doing well.

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