Close Call

It was no larger than a pea and my husband said he couldn't feel it, that it was nothing. I called Kaiser anyway to make an appointment with OB-Gynecology. The faceless receptionist snapped, saying I had to see a surgeon. I didn't want to see a surgeon. Surgeons cut, don't they? I just wanted a doctor to examine the lump on my breast. I waited a month, hoping the breast mass would disappear, but it didn't. Reluctantly I made an appointment with General Surgery.

A few years ago, I had gone on a diet and lost a lot of weight. Quite by accident I felt a marble-sized lump in the center of my chest and I rushed to Kaiser's walk-in clinic. The doctor laughed and reassured me that it was just my siphis sternum, a long-forgotten bone uncovered by my diet.

There I was again, waiting to see a doctor. My heart pounded against my ribs. I hoped he'd laugh and tell me it was another bone and to go home.

It is a scary thing to imagine the possibilities of what can happen when you have such a growth in your body. Suddenly, it seems everybody's relative or friend has breast cancer. Newspapers and magazines are riddled with articles about this illness that afflicts one out of ten women. Mastectomy, radiation, even death-terrifying thoughts. It makes one realize how vulnerable and temporary we mortals are. A few years on this earth, then no more. I thought of my family, the children in particular. The youngest was only two. I just wanted to take care of them, to see the little one grow, to watch the other two boys blossom into young men.

The doctor confirmed the breast mass and ordered a mammogram. Enormous X-ray machines were aimed at my chest; my body contorted this way and that so a picture could be taken. I had read that exposure to the X-rays was a cancer risk in itself, but what could I do?

In two weeks, my doctor phoned saying the mammogram was clear. But, he added, it was only 85 percent accurate and we needed to keep track of the mass. At my next check-up my doctor had a worried look. He suggested a biopsy to be on the safe side.

One Friday I awoke to a soft dawn. There was a hazy red sky and the city lights were still on. I got ready to go to Kaiser for surgery. If the lump is malignant, I thought, my life will change. I will be medically processed, cut up, bombarded with radiation, become a statistic. My priorities, my way of thinking, my way of life will be altered. Everything will be different.

Kaiser is excellent at processing people into outpatients. In a short while I was wearing a gown with little blue stars and my left wrist displayed an identification bracelet.

An anesthesiologist reviewed my medical history, taking careful note of my allergies. After a long wait, I was given a sedative and wheeled into another room where I was IV-ed and a cap placed over my hair. The sedative dulled my senses and I could barely hear the nurses gossiping. Can you believe that? one nurse said. He's in recovery from a throat cancer operation, and he's begging for a cigarette.

Later a cheerful orderly wheeled me to the operation room, and at the doorway, the nurses introduced themselves. Under the bright lights, it was only Lyn, the nurse anesthesiologist, who caressed my face, saying soft cooing words that comforted me. When they put a drape on my face, I panicked and Lyn gave me some of her magic potion. The medication was strong and I only had enough presence to ask the doctor how the breast mass looked. I'm 95 percent sure it's benign, he said. I slumped back in relief and allowed myself to drift.

A week later, my doctor looked at the histological report and said the breast mass was definitely benign. A burden is lifted off me and life is a precious gift. I will see my children grow after all.