I am still determined to be cheerful and to be happy, in whatever situation I may be — for I have learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances. - Martha Washington
I arrived on time at my doctor’s office and took a seat in a cream and gray upholstered chair. I was there for my final, follow-up appointment after a routine surgical breast procedure.
In the previous couple of months I had gotten to know the receptionist, Marian, who always greeted me with a radiant smile. The question, “How are you?” was not rhetorical for Marian; she actually listened to the answer. At one appointment, though, her usual ebullience seemed strained.
I asked her if she wasn’t feeling well. “My daughter had a very bad weekend,” she said.
“What happened?” I asked, afraid I was being too personal.
“She’s been having seizures. They’re getting worse. She was born deaf and blind.”
Now it was my turn to listen. The child’s father had left them and Marian was caring for the three-year-old by herself.
Marian spoke of the difficulties of simply taking the child out of the house for fresh air, or of going for rides in the car.
“She’s terrified of strange places because she can’t get her bearings by sight or sound. Sometimes she just screams.”
“My God,” I said. “I’d never have imagined you were struggling with so much. You’ve always been such a bright spot in my visits here. You always seem so happy.
Her next remark came without a moment’s hesitation. “I have to be happy. If I’m not happy how will my little girl learn to be happy?”
Weeks passed and my incisions were looking less raw. I could wear a bra and fitted clothes.
Marian and I were chatting as I waited for the doctor. Her daughter was doing better, she said. I was so relieved to hear it. The doctor, manila file in hand, appeared at the door of the examining room and motioned me inside. “I’m feeling great,” I said to her, smiling. She looked at me carefully and then asked me to have a seat on the paper-covered examining table. She drew a deep breath.
“I have something to tell you.”
I didn’t see it coming. I’d gone through all kinds of checks before the surgery. I’d had no lumps, no symptoms, nothing suspicious in any of my pre-op visits. My mammograms were clean. “There’s good news and bad news,” she continued, laying her hand over mine. Then, reading the alarm that must have been rising in my eyes like mercury in a thermometer, she spoke quickly. “The tissue that was removed from your breasts, you know… Well, it’s…” She struggled for words. “They do a routine biopsy on removed tissue. They always do that. They found cancer cells in one breast.”
I stopped breathing.
“I’ve never had this happen before in my practice. After a cosmetic procedure, I mean,” — as if that information might reassure me.
“But the good news is it wasn’t a tumor. It was cells. Just cells. It was caught very early. It might not have shown up as a lump for two years — or more.”
The light drained from the room.
“Lie back,” she said, taking hold of my shoulder. “You’re about to faint.”
I don’t remember how I got out of there. Did I drive myself home? Did I go directly to another doctor, perhaps a cancer doctor, in the same building? Did I say goodbye to Marian?
During the next few days, numb with terror I was dispatched to an oncologist, then to a second-opinion-oncologist, then to a cancer counselor, then to a surgeon who would perform a mastectomy, then to the plastic surgeon who’d put me back together, assuming there was enough skin left to cover the implant once the recently-stitched, not-fully-healed edges were cut away.
Since the cancerous tissue had not been marked as to location during the cosmetic procedure, it was the oncology team’s consensus that the best, the only, course of treatment was to remove all the remaining breast tissue. Plus some lymph nodes to be sure the malignancy hadn’t spread. I would lose some feeling in my arm, I learned, but if there were no “involvement” of the lymph nodes, there was more “good” news: No chemo, no radiation. And a new, albeit fake, breast.
How does one’s body decide to grow malignant cells? What signal, impulse, trigger, causes evil cells to spring up where before were only good cells? A few months after the mastectomy when I went for a follow-up appointment, I asked the doctor how long those cells had been there.
“When did they start to grow?” I wanted to know.
“About a year ago,” he replied.
About a year ago. I am not a journal keeper except in times of extreme duress. About a year ago I had written in my journal, “This is taking a terrible toll on my body.” The “this” I was referring to was the second lawsuit. That journal entry was dated several months into the second lawsuit.
Time has passed. I have put the cancer experience behind me. Years later, when an acquaintance who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer called me in a panic for advice, I had a ready answer.
“Don’t worry.” I said. “In the hierarchy of bad things that have happened to me in my life, breast cancer is at the bottom of the list.”
At the top of the list is the second lawsuit.