Friday, October 15, 2010

First appointment

Saturday, Oct. 9th, 2010

Terri sat on the examination table looking more frightened than I'd ever seen her.

"I'm afraid to have a mastectomy, but I'm afraid NOT to," she whispered hoarsely.

Terri's husband Paul, Deb, Mary and I were crowded closely together in the examination room while Dr. Janet Grange., the kind, attractive breast cancer surgeon, stepped out to retrieve Terri's pathology report.

"Wait for Dr. Grange," I whispered.  "She'll help you decide."

It wasn't by accident that we were here.  Paul's brother-in-law Steve was a prominent Omaha neurosurgeon, and his wife Shari was a cancer survivor herself.  I'd taught them both years ago at the little Catholic high school in Grand Island where all my younger brothers and sisters had attended school, too.  Steve and Shari were two of the finest people I knew, and it was because of them that Terri was here.

"All right," Dr. Grange breezed back into the room.  She scanned Terri's report quickly and looked up with a confident smile. "You have," she said, "the best kind of breast cancer you possibly could.  Congratulations for being so diligent about your yearly mammograms," she said.  "You saved your life."

We all heaved a collective sigh of relief - all but Terri who still sat tensely with that hunted look.

"Because your cancer is so early," Dr. Grange. tried to reassure her, "you're an excellent candidate for a lumpectomy with radiation.  I see," she bent over the report again, "that your mother had breast cancer?"
She looked up with a question.

"She did," Terri said.  "She died when we were young."

"Oh," Dr. Grange studied Terri's face.  "Well, now it seems we may be talking about something else.  Young women who watch their mothers die of breast cancer sometimes have emotional issues with a simple lumpectomy.  How are you feeling about it?"

My sisters and I stared at each other.  Nobody had ever told us that our irrational fears about Mom's death might not possibly be so irrational after all.  Every yearly screening was torture.  As soon as we set the appointments for our mammograms, the dark clouds settled above and followed us morning, noon and night.

"People tell me all the time how much they look forward to summer," Terri said flatly.  "I hate summer.  Summer means my mammogram."  Now she drew a long, shaky breath.  "I'm thinking about a double mastectomy," she said to Dr. Grange.

For the better part of an hour, we listened and asked intent questions.  And afterwards, on the way home in the car, Deb asked the question.  "What do you think, Ter?"

Paul, who was driving, glanced at Terri sideways.  "I think she's made her decision."
Terri nodded.  "I'm having the mastectomy."

Just like that, we all felt better. A plan was in motion, and Terri would defeat this thing that held us all hostage.

We talked over the possiblities of reconstructive surgery at Arby's over lunch.  For some reason, Terri was remembering the odd man who had been their next door neighbor when their oldest children were young.  She and Paul had gone to great lengths to keep their kids away from him.  He'd plastered pictures of bare-breasted women all over the walls of his house which could be seen from the outside windows.

"Maybe I'll go back after my reconstructive surgery to pay him a visit," Terri joked.  " 'Wanna take a picture of these, Buddy?' "  With a drunken leer, she pretended to rip open her shirt.  " 'Don't have my nipples yet, but they're on the way!' "

We screamed with laughter.  Terri's wicked humor had been locked up for a long time, it seemed to us.

It was good to have her back.

Losing Mom

Friday, Oct. 8th, 2010

My mom was beautiful. I’m not just saying that. Everybody thinks his or her mother is beautiful. But mine really was. It must have been a shock for her to be an only child and grow up to be the mother of ten kids. But to see her, you’d never have known it. She was always slender and gorgeous with big dewy brown eyes and cheekbones to die for.

She used to sit at her piano and play by the hour. My baby brother Tommy would lie in his playpen and doze in the sun while she played. I would cuddle up to her shoulder beside her and sniff the Avon scented candle on top of the piano, and I would watch her beautiful hands glide across the keyboard.

As the oldest, I didn’t get Mom all to myself very much of the time, so I savored that time at the piano. As a matter of fact, I inherited my mother’s piano, and it sits in my living room with that same Avon scented candle on top of it. Would you believe it? That candle still has its scent after more than 40 years. I’m sure it’s a little sign from Mom. I’m a big believer in signs.

She was 45 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was so unthinkable, we couldn’t for one second entertain the thought that she could possibly die from it. But she did. Only three years later.
Our huge strong father was in denial. We were all in denial. My youngest brother Jeff was only 7-years-old, but I was 23. I should have been old enough to figure it all out. But I didn’t.

One day, when Mom was in the hospital, I moved back home to help out with the younger kids. Walking through my mom and dad’s room, I discovered my youngest brother Jeff in the bed half asleep hugging Mom’s pillow. “Mommy,” he sighed. I should have picked him up then and there and comforted him. But instead, I went to the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and cried. It wouldn’t really happen, I told myself.

She died in April, 1979. Terri was 12-years-old, and she cried so hard at Mom’s wake that Aunt Patty had to take her out of the funeral chapel. It’s hard enough to be 12-years-old without looking at your mother lying in a casket.

Now that Terri has breast cancer, I think of that time in our lives. One day, a month or so after Mom died, Terri came to me with her face full of fear.

“I think I have breast cancer,” she said.
It would have been laughable had we not all been so raw with grief.

“You don’t have cancer,” I said.

Her eyes filled with tears. “I do. I have a lump.”

I examined the lump. “Terri,” I said, “it’s a bone. Everybody has it.”

Her small face crumpled in relief, and she smiled for the first time in days.
It was good to be the big sister and take that horrible worry from my little sister.

More than 30 years later, I'm still her big sister.  But I can't take her breast cancer away.

Terri's news

Before Christmas, I will have lost my breasts.

It’s the first time I’ve written those words. .

Deb and Mary, my younger sisters, will also lose theirs.

None of us is sick. Not yet. But Deb has atypical hyperplasia, two little spots of precancerous cells.

It was not even two months ago that our 44-year-old sister Terri was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she had her biopsy in early July, I told her not to worry. We’d all had biopsies, and it wouldn’t be anything. Even the radiologist in Lincoln told her not to worry.

“Go home and enjoy your 4th of July weekend,” she reassured Terri.  But the next Tuesday, Terri called me from the WalMart parking lot.

“I’ve got it!” she sobbed.

I waited for her to tell me it was a joke. Terri’s good at fake sobbing. But none of us would joke about this. Somehow I was standing in the corner of our dining room by the big potted plant not recalling exactly how I got there.

“Terri,” I finally said, “tell me exactly what they told you.”

She struggled to pull herself together. “I have to see the doctor this afternoon. The nurse wasn’t going to tell me!” she fell apart again. “But I told her, ‘If something’s wrong, you tell me now!’ She finally said it was breast cancer.”

It’s a hard thing to be 90 miles away from your little sister when she’s just received news like this. Terri’s tall and beautiful and the mother of six kids. But in that moment, she was my baby sister with her fluff of yellow hair and her gap-toothed smile. And I was an hour and 15 minutes away.

“Have you called Paul?” I asked.

“Yes,” she breathed raggedly. “He’s meeting me at home. But I can’t go home and tell the kids!” The sobs started afresh.

We prayed on the phone. At least, I prayed. I’m not much of a phone pray-er. But Terri and her husband Paul are the most devout Catholics I know. I’m a good Catholic myself, but I like to do my praying at Mass or on my Rosary beads. Terri, however, will clasp her hands in a restaurant and say grace right then and there. So I prayed for her, and she stopped crying.

She called again after her doctor’s visit, and I heard the overwhelming disbelief in her voice. “Invasive ductal carcinoma,” she read to me from the biopsy report, “and another spot of D.C.I.S.” I scribbled it all furiously on an envelope. Later, I would google it all.

“The doctor said it’s early,” she said.

It was a glimmer of hope.

And it was the beginning of losing our breasts.