I’ve never been afraid to question my doctors. After all, they work for me. I’m big on asking “why” and “how.” When I got my cancer diagnosis, the one new question I should have asked but didn’t is “Are you sure?”
I was in New Mexico waiting for my biopsy results. Doctor G had done a core biopsy of my tumor and one lymph node. (A core biopsy is a sampling of tissue retrieved with a hollow needle. Yes, it hurts.) I already knew from the mammogram and ultrasound that I had cancer. The dark mass and shadows I saw on those screens couldn’t be anything but, and my doctor had all but confirmed that. The biopsy results would be absolute verification that the mass was cancer. The results would tell the story of my cancer, as well as whether or not it was present in at least one lymph node.
The nurse practitioner called the afternoon before Thanksgiving. For a moment I thought this was a good sign. Wouldn’t the doctor have called me herself if this was Really Bad Cancer (not that there’s such a thing as Really Good Cancer…)? The NP cut to the chase. “You have ductal invasive carcinoma in the right breast with metastatic disease in the lymph node.” She said some other things. I wrote them down on the last page of my five-year journal, the only paper available. Pause. Um. “Oh,” I said, “I guess I want to talk to the doctor about this.” I could think of nothing else to say. She told me to try to have a good Thanksgiving and the doctor would call me on Monday. Maybe I said goodbye, maybe I said nothing. I was aware of my heartbeat, my ears popping when I swallowed. I had metastatic breast cancer. Goddamnit. Pathology reports don’t lie.
I surprised myself by not spending the holiday weekend curled up under the covers in my friends’ guest room while berating myself for having almost all the risk factors for breast cancer. I had my son at 40, I used to smoke cigarettes, I have too much body fat, I’m Ashkenazi Jewish, I’m post-menopausal, my mother had breast cancer, etc. I know, it’s crazy, but ordinarily, I would have isolated and moped and blamed myself.
I’m not sure what took hold of me. In the midst of my shock and terror, I hit the computer. Instead of retreating, I organized a Facebook Group and set up a MyCancerCircle.com helpers’ website so local friends could help me. When that was done, I played Santa Fe tourist. My friends took me to museums, restaurants, shopping — there was no stopping me. This awful cancer diagnosis propelled me outward instead of inward. I realized I was doing anything I could not to think about the future, or other present problems. It was unprecedented for me, the eternal worrier. What I didn’t realize is that I was developing a healthy resentment for this interloper, this uninvited cancer. This impulse continues to serve me well.
I was still in Santa Fe on Monday when the nurse practitioner called again. What now? “Sally, I am so sorry. I misread the pathology report. There is no sign of metastatic disease.” Reader, I burst into tears. It turned out to be Thanksgiving, after all. “What do I have?” “You have ductal invasive carcinoma with no sign of metastatic disease.” What had seemed like a death sentence all weekend suddenly shifted. This I could work with. This is different. This meant I had a better chance. A question arose in my head. “Are you sure?” “Yes. Dr. G will call you this afternoon.” I wished I had asked her that question before Thanksgiving. A closer reading of the pathology report would have revealed her mistake.
Reader, if you don’t like what you hear from your doctors, ask questions. In fact, ask questions anyway. If you don’t understand something, make your nurse or doctor explain it until you do. I am not stupid and neither are you. This is uncharted territory for most of us. It is good to ask directions. I hope my initial misread results prove that “Are you sure?” is a fair question.