About a month ago, my younger brother Chris ended up in the hospital. For the past ten years, he’s been struggling with abdominal pain and issues with his gut. He’s been to different doctors, but none have a solution, although they seem to have narrowed it down to diverticulitis and a lactose intolerance.
That day, he was having severe abdominal pain, enough to go to the emergency room. While they were getting him registered, he fainted, and they rushed him back to be examined. It was the same old, same old, except worse: a micro-perforation in his colon plus an infection. They pumped him full of painkillers and antibiotics and told him he needed a surgery to remove a foot of colon. He had to heal a bit first.
Today is the day he’s having his surgery. Today is also the day of my breast biopsy.
I feel bad for my poor parents. There’s me, 36, who just got diagnosed with cancer, and there’s my brother, 33, who almost died due to this gut problem. My dad was just declared rectal cancer-free a few months ago, after going through a year’s worth of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. He has a permanent colostomy bag, but other than that, it was fairly routine—if there’s anything routine about cancer.
Nobody needs this shit. Why’s it all happening one after another?
My biopsy is at the clinic less than five minutes from my house. I decide to go alone again, and Kevin stays with the kids. I could probably have found someone to go with me, but we don’t have close friends and family here in Oshawa.
Kevin and I met online ten years ago. He lived in a small town in northern Canada, and I lived in Iowa. I was able to transfer to the Canadian head office for the company I worked with; he moved here to be with me. The plan all along was to move back to the US, but a marijuana charge from when he was 19 prevented him from even entering the country. It takes a lot of time and money to get that shit worked through, so we settled in the Greater Toronto Area.
There’s never enough time. There’s never enough money.
We picked Oshawa because the housing here is cheaper than close to the city, and because it’s a nice town. I never liked the place we moved to originally—Mississauga—because it was too busy and too expensive. But we’ve struggled to make friends here. It’s hard to make adult friends.
We did start making friends in the parents of multiples group we joined. I was happy about that—it was about time. But we only just joined it. The twins are only five months old. The group has been amazing, though. So many people, even people I’m sure I’ve only met on the Facebook group, have offered to help. But still, everyone has their own lives—and twins or triplets plus other kids—to deal with.
I’m fine going to the biopsy by myself. It’s not good storytelling, but I say that up front so that you don’t worry too much about me.
Standing in front of the elevator, I see a sign that says, “Mammograms save lives!” There is a smiling family of women gazing out at me. Inside the elevator is a different sign with the same sentiment.
I avert my eyes.
I don’t have to wait in the busy, shared waiting room for long. The nurse speaks gently as she shows me toward the back. I’m not sure if it’s because she’s used to it for the women who are there to have biopsies or if it’s because of, as my doctor put it on Monday, my condition.
“Here is the recovery room,” she says. It has two recliners, a carousel of magazines, and some wire stars and moon hanging from the ceiling as decoration. “You can leave your things here. No one else will be in here until you’re done.”
She has me strip from the waist up and gives me a hospital gown. “Make sure it opens in the front.”
After I’m ready, she brings me back to the same room where I had the ultrasound a week and a half ago. She explains that they’re going to take five samples of each lump, so ten in total. “There’s a small chance of complications. You could start bleeding and not stop; if that happens, you need to go to emerg.” I sign a piece of paper that says I understand this risk.
I think again about how much more fun the ultrasounds were when I was pregnant. She has me lie down next to the ultrasound machine. There are pictures on the wall of babies in utero. She searches for the lumps again, explaining she needs to verify they haven’t moved.
I think about asking how often a lump moves and what might cause that to occur but decide against it.
The woman who is doing the procedure comes in, the same director or head of whatever it is. I think about asking what her title is, but I decide that might be rude. The last thing I want is to be rude to the woman who is taking ten chunks out of me.
She explains the same things as the first technician, who is standing by to act as assistant. “I’ll give you an injection of local anesthetic. You’ll feel a pinch. I’ll make the incision and then take the samples. You shouldn’t feel anything, but there’s a loud sound when I take each one.” She demonstrates; the contraption goes CLACK. “It might startle you, but try to stay still.”
They fuss over getting me positioned right. They have me roll to my side and then put a wedge under my shoulder. They put another one, have me move around. Finally, I’m settled.
She pushed back my hospital gown and sets up towels around the area. She wipes me down with disinfectant that stings my nose. They’re both wearing solemn looks, and I suppose I am, too.
Herman is sitting by my shoulder, silent.
“Pinch,” she says.
The anesthetic goes in. It’s much less painful than the one for my jaw biopsy, and the pain fades quickly. She works. I don’t look.
“Here goes the first one.”
The clack goes off, and I startle. I try hard to hold still. It doesn’t hurt.
She leans over the little table she’s got next to her. I stare at the ceiling. Medical stuff doesn’t bother me, but the idea that it might bother me keeps me from looking. The last thing I need to do is have a panic attack in a situation that I can’t get away from.
“Next one,” she says.
This one hurts. It’s a cross between a pinch and a burn. I wince.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “Maybe just that one. Let’s try another.”
The next one hurts just as badly. Tears are in my eyes.
“Let me give you some more anesthetic.”
I have seven more to go. I can endure this, even if it hurts. My body doesn’t like this, but why would it? Anyway, they’re getting the cancer out, even if it’s just a tiny chunk at a time.
I don’t feel the next one; the last one burns again.
I hate this. I hate all this. They need to do it. I know it’s important. But why? Why did this have to happen to me?
“How big are the spots?” I ask.
“Top down? They could be bigger in the vertical, but one is 2.5 centimeters wide, and one is 0.8 centimeters wide.”
Seriously. So small. So tiny. So deadly.
This one also doesn’t hurt very much. I brace myself for the rest of it.
I breathe a sigh of relief.
Clack. Still no pain.
Three more, and it’s done.
She puts dressing over each spot. “The second one had some internal bleeding. You’re going to have a bruise.”
They remind me not to get it wet—no shower for four days. Uh-oh. I washed my hair the previous night, but maybe I should have showered before I came.
Watch for bleeding. Take painkillers. “Don’t do anything strenuous with your upper body for the first twenty-four hours.”
“Oh,” I say. “What about the babies? No lifting? No diaper changing?”
“No, that’s fine,” she says.
I smile. “Aw, can I tell my husband I can’t, anyway?”
She laughs. “Just don’t play any tennis.” She has me press my hands against the incision locations.
The assistant ushers me into the waiting room. “You have half an hour, and then you can go. If you need anything, I’m around. I’ll go get you some water.”
After she returns, I try to figure out how to get on my phone while I’m pressing against both spots. I finally take a hand away briefly to call my brother.
“I’m scared shitless,” he says. He’s in pre-op.
“You’re going to be fine,” I say. This I believe. It’s harder to believe that about myself, but with his surgery—he’s going to be fine. Better than fine. He’s going to feel fantastic once he’s healed.
We talk for a while. His faith is getting him through this. I’m glad for him. I’m glad we’re talking regularly, although it’s shitty something like this has to happen.
The time ticks by, and he has to get off the phone. I’m calm, although I feel a bit shaky. That’ll happen, I suppose, when they take a few chunks out of you. I drink my water while using one hand to awkward press into the spots on my boob. They don’t hurt.
I feel strong.
I’ve got this.
I can do this.