Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The picture of health

Spoiler alert: I'm going to ruin the ending of this story right at the outset.

I don't have breast cancer.

And whaddya know? The second I found that out, guess whose right ta-ta stopped hurting? Mine. It was all in my head. Now today, even though my boobs are sore (chalk that up to a combination of pilates, bikram yoga, and never ending consultations with surgeons and their fellows and residents and med school students and strangers off the street who apply their cold, clammy hands to my delicate bosom and stick fingers in my arm pippies, looking for inflamed lymph nodes), I know they aren't going to kill me immediately. (Wiping sweat from brow.)


I still had a scare.

As ordered by my breast surgeon, I had an MRI last Tuesday. It was a comical, loud process. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of being placed on a conveyor belt and inserted into a large machine around which magnets noisily rotate to create images of your insides, let me describe it thusly: the MRI machine is frighteningly Jetson-esque. It's like Epcot Center (the world of tomorrow as imagined by theme park designers yesterday). It's like the future Bill and Ted visit at the end of their eponymous excellent adventure, where everyone is wearing quasi-futuristic clothes and sunglasses. Apparently at the vanguard of medical technology, the MRI instead seems laughably outdated. It does, however, make noises that vaguely resemble the drum and bass beats of the late 90s. With its squeaking, whistling, and pounding, the MRI approximates the swampy, jungle rhythms of trance. So as least you can dance to it. Oh wait, but you can't. Because you can't move. For 45 minutes.

Aside from the fact that my shoulders fell asleep (they were immobilized in a Superman-like stretch while my lady parts hung down into little boob buckets), the MRI was a painless process that went by much quicker than I anticipated (is it possible that I dozed off?). But the next morning, home sick in bed (with symptoms unrelated to bosoms), I got the real kick in the nipple: the MRI had found something suspicious. A radiologist, who introduced herself as Holly, left me a voicemail. (This made me think maybe it wasn't all bad news, because real doctors don't introduce themselves as Holly, right? Maybe she was like a b-team doctor, a temp; she got the unimportant cases, the cases that didn't need to be dealt with by a Dr. So-and-so but could simply be taken care of by a Holly.) When I got her on the horn, Holly said, rather vaguely, the scan indicated some enhancement in the parenchyma of my left breast. (Which was my second clue that this story might have a happy ending. Because we all know my left breast is the good breast, the A-student, the church choir member. My right boob cuts class and smokes cigarettes behind the gym.) Nevertheless, it was miss-goody-two-shoes that looked suspect, so Holly recommended I schedule a follow-up ultrasound and another mammogram.

I wasn't completely paralyzed with fear (I had been warned that because MRIs are particularly sensitive, they often give false positives) until I got into my gown at the women's hospital and sat (more like fidgeted, paced the floor, tapped the windows in an annoying way, opened and closed my book, read and reread the same sentence) in the waiting room with other anxious women awaiting boob judgment. Everyone looked miserable. And I was terrified.

The woman who did my mammogram assured me that my films looked fine, that MRIs are a pandora's box. She told me to go buy something expensive and unnecessary to celebrate my clean bill of health. I didn't believe her, of course, but her optimism propelled me across the hall and onto the examining table where she lacquered up my left breast with gel and pushed a cold wand across my skin. There was a monitor just above my head so I could watch the strange gray contours of my insides undulate across the screen. "See, I told ya. Nothing," she said. To me, my breast looked mostly like television static, or maybe fuzzy stratified rock. What would something bad look like? How could you tell? Several doctors entered the room, one of whom was the illustrious Holly, who turned out to be a real doctor after all (she was wearing a white lab coat and everything), and they all took turns with the gel and the wand and eventually, they all agreed: there was nothing there. I left with a clean bill of boob health. But not after almost having a nervous breakdown after getting word of the abnormal MRI.

I also left the hospital with something more important: the knowledge that surveillance, and the attendant anxieties, is not going to work for me. I get too stressed, too worried; I fall down the worm-hole into the fantasy land of magical thinking. And I can't go there every six months. If I do, I know that one day, the MRI won't yield a false positive; it'll be the real thing. And that's not something I can sit around and wait patiently for.

So, to my healthy breasts: love ya guys, glad we're not at war yet, but yer still coming off.


  1. I join Dr. Steve Brule (maybe Holly knows him?) in toasting, "To your health!"

    What expensive thing did you buy? I hope it's a dirtbike.

  2. I am so glad you are "clean" -- but I have to say you totally cracked me up...."little boob buckets" had me howling, lol!!! And gosh did I need a good laugh. Thanks :)

  3. Steph,
    I was just made aware of everything. I think you are incredibly brave. I can't even begin to imagine what your life has been like. You will always be in my thoughts; as you made an impact on my life. From PHISH to Sherman Ave and everything else...I will always be a friend, and offer support. I will be reading your blog for updates. Love to Gabers...

    -Jason Leitman