A month ago I found a lump in my right breast, maybe an inch large and highly distinct, off on the "distal" side toward my armpit. (These are good occasions for searching out the intersections of science and poetry - "distal" is lovely and deserves a wider acquaintance.) I have been waiting for this almost as for an inevitability. My mom was ten years younger than I am now when she was diagnosed with melanoma. Thanks to a skilled surgeon and a brutal but effective regimen of chemo, she made a near-miraculous escape and thoroughly enjoyed an eleven-year reprieve before one of her breasts swelled suddenly to twice its ordinary size. Days later, she received a diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer - very rare and very aggressive. She was forty-five then, forty-eight when she died.
Thus, for our family, cancer took on an aspect of the ordinary horrifying, one of life's givens, and that has included for me an assumption that I would one day get my own diagnosis. A rite of passage, though through what and to what none could say. I think my sister, Megan, shares this irrational persuasion (irrational because the cancer that killed Mom has no established genetic basis), but it's strengthened in me by the weird coincidence of a shared birthday. I was born twenty years to the day after Mom, and my superstitious sense of symmetry suggests that I have four years left before my time is up.
I should have expected but did not expect that I would feel so close to Mom when I went in to Kaiser's "imaging" center two weeks ago for a mammogram and sonogram. As it was for Mom, the mammogram was for me all but useless - Megan and I share a matrilineal legacy of low blood pressure and unusually dense breast tissue - but the sonogram confirmed the presence of a tumor. I returned to the center last week for a core needle biopsy and expect results tomorrow that may or may not be conclusive.
The good news is that there's a strong probability - maybe nine to one - that the tumor is benign. The bad news is that it is likely of a type that will require "excision," not just of the tumor itself but also of a wide margin of healthy tissue. "Phyllodes" tumors have a pretty Greek name that refers to a leaf-like pattern of growth at the cellular level. When benign, they may rapidly grow until they distort the breast or even create open lesions on the skin. When malignant, they do not resemble most other forms of breast cancer but are classified as sarcomas, and they may metastasize outside the breast. Both types present a high risk of recurrence if any stray cells are left behind, and definitive distinctions between them are difficult or in some instances impossible to make. (The tumors have three classifications: benign, malignant, and borderline.)
The last and most hopeful possibility is that it's a late-blooming fibroadenoma, which is lacking in both poetry and danger. But that tends to be a young woman's no big problem, and I am no longer a young woman.
So it looks like I may lose at least part of my right boob, and I am having a harder time with that prospect than I could have guessed, given that I've been complaining for thirty years about being overburdened. Yesterday I was flying very low to the ground, not in a grateful or celebratory "Live, dammit!" frame of mind like I've been intent on preserving. A Chargers win could really have come in handy, but nothing doing there.
What could I do but stop running and look my wolf in the teeth? Pen in hand, natch.
Poems in honor of my breasts
I wear a thin woolen sweater in a shade of royal purple
Against my skin
It clings and I revel in the fulsomeness I have from my mother
As she had it from her mother before her.
The question mark drawn from breast to waist
Makes an empty invitation -
Its terminus has been closed for years,
The chamber collapsed, the altar smashed.
The gesture remains fertile.
Complete the riddle.
They've never known from perky.
Droopy and friendly as basset puppies,
With plump bodies and soft noses
Warm with fever.
I put them away for polite company -
They're too much!
And too much neglected.
But I loose them for love, for play.