In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you, right from the get-go, that, when it comes to hospitals and people in white coats, I am a total wimp! My mother was a nurse, and when I was a kid, she would get vaccines from the hospital where she worked and give them to my brother, sister, and me at home. I was always petrified when she’d pull those needles out of her bag and say to me, “Since you’re the oldest, you’ll go first, to set an example for your brother and sister.”
That’s when I would take off, out the front door, running around and around the house, yelling, “I don’t want to be the example! Let Connie be the example!”
Mother couldn’t shame me, but she was always able catch me and stick the needle in my arm as I begged for mercy. I wondered years later what the neighbors must have thought was going on at our house on the days when we got our vaccinations.
I still hate needles, and, although, by now, I’ve had enough blood drawn to fill a swimming pool, I’ve never once watched the needle go into my arm.
Let’s fast-forward now to October of 2001. (That’s right – a month after 9/11.) I think we all can agree that 2001 was one of the worst years in American history, but for me it was even worse because it was in October of that year that I found out I had breast cancer. My doctor’s associate, whom I’d never met, called one afternoon, a week before Halloween, to tell me the news. I didn’t know what to say, and, hanging up the phone, felt suddenly overwhelmed by the deepest fear I’d ever known. It was as if a veil of innocence had been lifted from my eyes, and I would never be carefree again.
As any breast cancer survivor can tell you, I’d actually already been through a series of traumatic experiences before receiving the phone call that would change my life. It started with a routine mammogram, which I’d always viewed as a minor inconvenience. After I got dressed, the technician came back into the room with the first of some very bad news. The results showed ” a possible abnormality,” and I would need to have an ultrasound test to either verify or discount the findings. What? What was he saying?
“Don’t worry,” the radiologist told me, “ about 85% of these tests come back negative.” But mine didn’t, and I suddenly felt like the bottom had dropped out of my world.
The next step was to have a core biopsy done in order to remove some tissue to be tested. Back at home, reading about this procedure, is when I started worrying , and with good reason, it turned out. I had to lie, face down, on a table, with my breasts hanging down through two holes. Thinking about how silly this would look from underneath the table made me laugh and relax for a short while, relax, that is, until the radiologist went to work. Looking back on the procedure, I guess that he must have shot a pain-killer into my breast, but I don’t remember him doing that and, if he did, it didn’t do much good, because when he started drilling into my breast, I couldn’t believe the pain. The one reassuring thing I remember is the hand of one of the nurses holding my hand throughout the whole procedure. I had been warned to stay completely still for the duration, and I’m not sure I would have been able to do that without her help and comfort
When the radiologist had finished drilling, I stood up, they slapped a bandage on me, and sent me on my way. But by the time my husband and I got to the car, I was bleeding profusely through the bandage and my shirt. I was lucky to find an old towel on the floor of the car and pressed it to my chest as we rushed back into the hospital, where they fixed me up with a heavier bandage. When I got home that night, I realized what a terrorizing experience I’d been through and that this might only be the beginning. It was then that I started thinking about how I could prepare myself to get through this hell if it turned out that I did, indeed, have cancer.
Unfortunately, before I had much time to contemplate what I would do, I received the phone call. It was late on a Friday afternoon in October.
“Hello. This is Dr. Chan,” said a kindly voice on the other end of the line. I didn’t know him, but it turns out he was one of my primary physician’s colleagues. My doctor was out of town, so Dr. Chan was calling to tell me that they had received my biopsy report. It was positive.
I stared out the window at my front yard, the late autumn sun burnishing the leaves of the old oak tree. “So, that means….”
He cleared his throat. “Yes, I’m sorry to bring this bad news. I’ll be sending you a list of recommended surgeons. You should choose one right away and make an appointment.”
My head felt like it was full of fuzz. I couldn’t think. “A list of surgeons. Right. I’ll need that. Thank you.”
I hung up the phone and walked over to the window, staring out at the waning light. The yard still looked the same as it had before the phone call. I examined my hands. They looked the same, but they weren’t. Nothing was the same as it had been. It was a completely different world now because now I had…. At first I couldn’t say the word, then slowly the sounds came out of my mouth, “Cancer.” The word tasted bitter on my tongue. No one wants to say this word out loud. What was going to happen to me? To my children? My husband? I sat down at the desk and stared at the phone, the evil messenger. Eventually, I was able to call my husband, David, at work. I said the word into the receiver.
He remained calm. I think he knew he had to be that way. “I’ll be right home.” He paused. “The doctor told you this by phone, when you were all alone, instead of in his office where he could support you? Unbelievable.” He paused again. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Doctors, nurses, and hospital staffs do a great job of preparing you for a medical procedure. They tell you exactly what they will be doing when you are admitted and what drugs to take beforehand. They show you charts and diagrams explaining what is wrong with you, and tell you what to do after the procedure. What they don’t tell you is how to get through the experience emotionally, how to handle your fear about what you are facing. You’re on your own on that score. So, after my bad news, I realized that I needed a way to deal with the deep sense of foreboding that I was experiencing. Where could I turn for help?
When we look for guidance with a difficult problem, most of us start with what has worked for us in the past. People of faith turn first to God, praying for his guidance. And this gives many people a great sense of peace. But, after you’ve prayed, what should you do next? It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “God helps those who help themselves.” How can we help ourselves? I searched through books at the bookstore and library, but found nothing that was really useful . “Be strong!” a friend told me. “Just hang in there!” “Leave it all in God’s hands,” someone else offered. But I had to do something to help myself. What could I do? I began combing through my past life, looking for coping strategies that I had learned previously to get me through difficult times and began to piece together what would eventually become my Four Step Plan For Managing Fear. I am going to share this plan with you because I want you to be able to feel the peace that I have experienced, no matter what hardship you must face, or how high the mountain you must climb.
In my search for the right surgeon, I was fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place blessed with many excellent physicians. In talking with my primary care doctor, I settled on a well-respected breast surgeon who practiced at a nearby hospital.
David accompanied me on my first visit to Dr. Jenkins. I entered the office full of trepidation at the thought of finding out exactly what the x-ray and biopsy had revealed. Would I need a mastectomy? Was I going to die? My sweaty palms made it difficult, at first, to grasp his doorknob, but, after I did, I went into the office and took a seat. Fortunately, Dr. Jenkins’ calm and reassuring manner helped relieve some of my anxiety. He showed me the x-ray, pointing to two tiny white spots. “There are actually two tumors,” he said.
I took a deep breath. “Two?”
“Yes, but I’ll be able to get them both.”
“How do you know that for sure?”
He smiled. “Thirty years of experience.”
I then asked him to explain to me exactly what he’d be doing before, during, and after the procedure. And he did just that, patiently answering all of my questions.
That was the first important step I took — gathering all the information I could about my disease and treatment. Gaining knowledge about the thing that is paralyzing you will give you a sense of power. Remember that old saying, “Knowledge is Power”? It’s true. The more you can learn about your situation, the better you’ll feel about your ability to handle it.
So, I left Dr. Jenkins’ office with newfound hope that I could beat this thing they called ‘Cancer.’