We ain’t sure what were doing. We’re just like you.

I Have Breast Cancer.

I Have Breast Cancer.

Katherine Gierlach

I’ve never thought of myself as a survivor. Granted, I’ve survived a lot in my life (literally and figuratively) but everyone has their life challenges and I’ve never thought that my life was harder than anyone else's. But now, gaud willing, I will get to, eventually, put myself in the survivor category:

I have breast cancer.

It all started back in June. After getting out of the shower, I was drying off and I noticed a hard lump in my right breast. I’ve never done self breast exams because:

A. Who takes time for that?

B. I touch my boobs during sex, so that counts right?

C. Cancer is something that happens to someone else.

I made my partner, Jared, feel it; I thought maybe I was misfeeling the lump. But, shit, something really was there that was not normal. He, of course, told me to go to the doctor. At first, I blew it off -- this couldn’t possibly be anything worth worrying about.

But the lump never left my mind; I would, inadvertently, touch it all the time, and the foreign mass went from feeling like a mere lump, to being a 500lb weight. I thought, I can’t afford to have cancer. I don’t have insurance. I make too much money for ACCCHS, and somehow, paying the tax penalty for not having insurance seemed cheaper than any coverage I could find with the ACA. I figured, if I don’t get this thing looked at and diagnosed, maybe I would avoid the expense, and live well until I died from it, or...maybe I would just continue as is and nothing would happen -- like a gamble. No, this isn’t clear-headed thinking, but unfortunately, I don’t think this sort of reaction to such a discovery is uncommon.

*  * *

It took me until mid July to build up the courage to make an appointment and to have the lump looked at. The whole time I joked that we’re all going to die of cancer anyway, so I’d just be ahead of the game (humor and sarcasm are my coping mechanisms). Again, since I had no insurance, I made an appointment at El Rio and while in the waiting room, applied for some sort of 30 day insurance they offer. I wasn’t sure how I’d pay for anything. But I guess I had to figure it out, so I went through all the motions...sometimes not even sure what those motions were.

A nurse practitioner ended up doing a manual breast exam, and she expressed, “Wow. That’s very firm. It’s very firm isn’t it?”. Yes, it feels like a goddamn rock in my tit, I thought. She couldn’t give any diagnoses, and without insurance, just looking into this would be out of my price range. She told me that I might be a candidate for the Well Woman Program -- a program for women, 40 and over, with little or no insurance, that offers free breast and cervical cancer screenings. If you’re under 40 (like me), you may qualify with the right pain, lump, or other terrifying breast ailment.

My lump qualified. So, onto a referral to get a mammogram and ultrasound.

Two weeks or so later, say hello to your first mammogram! Yes, they are as weird and awkward as you might think. What person wouldn’t love getting their breast manipulated by a stranger, properly smashing it between two plastic plates? I think there was a technician in training, and both women attending to me were very nice, but when they took the photo (much like the x-ray process, they go behind a shielded area) they were giggling and joking about something or other. I just stood there stiff, wanting to disappear.

From that room, I wore my pink flowered half-cape and walked down the hall to another room where they performed the ultrasound examination. It’s just like when you’re pregnant! The technician that did the initial ultrasound said she’d present the pictures to the doctor, who may want to take a look, himself. He did. He very awkwardly scoped my irregularity with the ultrasound and wouldn’t look me in the eyes (I’m pretty sure he’d seen boobs before, but the way he was acting there’s no telling). He announced that a biopsy was in order to know anything for certain, that they would process my film, and send it over to my referring physician. Again, with no insurance, I couldn’t go to his preferred specialist for the biopsy -- I had to do more waiting to find out where I could go and to make an appointment.

Making an appointment proved harder than just waiting for a call and confirming a date. I had to drive to one doctor’s office and get a copy of my mammogram and ultrasound pictures on a disk, drive it across town to where they would perform the biopsy, fill out a bunch of paperwork, and hope that my lump met the parameters for an appointment (they are so busy, they can only promptly process cases that need immediate attention). Oh yeah, and I have a job, and a life.

During all of this period: waiting… always waiting. It felt like the time was moving too slow, and also that everything was moving too fast, all at once. I was stressed beyond what I felt I could handle, and my go-to relief was to pick up smoking (I hadn’t been a real smoker for about a decade). This seems to be the worst reaction to having cancer, but somehow it was all I could do to feel somewhat normal.

The cancer wasn’t real yet. I still felt that this whole experience was just an extravagant way to find out I just had some normal, harmless bump in my boob -- that this was a huge scare for nothing. So I didn’t tell anyone in the very beginning. My partner and one close friend knew; I didn’t see the need to stress people out when nothing was certain. Also, telling people would make it more real, and that was the last thing I wanted.

As I was waiting to hear back, and schedule my biopsy, I finally told my sister and a family friend, making a plan to tell my parents. My mom was having her own health issues, going through her own procedure, at the time. I didn’t want her to worry about this until I knew for certain what I was dealing with.

I also opened up to these people because, frankly, Jared’s kids were coming to visit and I was going to need someone to come to appointments with me. His kids live on the east coast, I had not met them yet, and we figured it wouldn’t be super fun for them to go to medical appointments and procedures while they were visiting.

We had a family dinner while my mom was in town and I finally told her everything I knew -- mostly that nothing was certain. I was waiting for more tests and it was still possible that all this was nothing. My mom took the news well, but I’m sure didn’t sleep that night. She told my dad about everything when she got back home (they live a few hours south, in Cochise County).

After waiting for what felt like forever, the biopsy got scheduled -- on the day after Jared’s kids arrived! How’s that for making one nerve wracking event even worse? “Hey kids! Nice to finally meet you! Make yourself at home, I’m gonna go get my boob stabbed with a giant specimen-taking needle and then we can hang out. Sound good? Cool.”

Our wonderful family friend, Julie (we actually just consider her family), drove me to my biopsy. At a previous appointment, I asked for a prescription to help with the anxiety surrounding all this, and I made sure I could take this before the procedure. So I was feeling kinda relaxed, fewer fucks to give. I got to wear another fashionable robe/cape -- this can’t be that bad.

First, the technician manually felt where the lump was and drew a little X over where they would enter my flesh. Then, they performed another ultrasound to get an idea of how big the sucker was. Then it was time for the fun part: localized anesthesia was injected to the area to get ready for the big guns. I really don’t know what the next device looked like because I closed my eyes, but in my mind, I pictured a tattoo gun with a giant hypodermic needle attached. They pushed the needle in where X marked the spot, and then came a loud clunking noise and what sounded like suction - I assumed that was a piece of my lump being sucked out. I couldn’t feel the needle going in, but I could feel the pressure, and the anesthetic didn’t go as deep as I would have liked.

So yeah, it fucking hurt. And it was scary. Oh, and while the needle was in, they also put a “marker” in my breast. A tiny metal ball that marks the offending lump for any further ultrasounds, MRIs, surgeries or what-have-you.

And now that that was over, more waiting!

Coming home, I was out of it, my boob hurt and I just wanted to lie in bed and fade away. With Jared’s kids being here, I wasn’t able to hide. But it turned out that the kids were a welcome distraction. We stuffed so much activity into the first week of their visit (we went hiking all over the southern part of the state, visited my family in Cochise County, visited Bisbee, dined out at our favorite places, did some homesteading projects…) and this all helped to take my mind off of the waiting for the results of the biopsy.

I had an appointment scheduled with a new nurse practitioner to look over my results: Monday, August 21, the day of the solar eclipse. We woke up early that morning, walked up Sentinel Peak, and collected prickly pear fruit while trying to remember how to make an eclipse-viewing box.

After the walk, I got ready for my appointment at 11am; Jared stayed home with the kids. At the doctor’s office, I waited in an exam room, the nurse’s assistant told me she wanted to finish up with her other patients so we’d have more time together. In my mind, I knew that couldn’t be a good sign, but I thought of excuses as to why she might want more time, even if the result was negative. Every time someone would open the door to the room to make sure I was ok, people were walking by, talking excitedly about the eclipse. “So and so brought glasses for us to share!” “Everyone’s out in the parking lot! It’s so funny!” Everyone was on their way out to look at the eclipse when the nurse practitioner finally came in to give me my test results.

I was told that I had breast cancer, and since that day I’ve joked that I should (maybe I do) have some kind of superpower, because I was diagnosed with cancer during a solar eclipse.

I have Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, or IDC, the most commonly diagnosed breast cancer, and I’m 34 years old. I’m not a sharer. I still don’t want to talk about this. I still don’t want to acknowledge it.

But it occurred to me that it might be helpful for other people, like me, to share. During this process, I’ve learned that more and more young women (some even in their 20s) are being diagnosed every year with breast cancer, whether or not there is a family history of the disease. The causes are now more environmental; the things we are exposed to. And good genes don’t determine your predisposition like before.

Holy shit, why aren’t we talking about this? What are we doing to our environment that it is killing us? What have we done?

This is just the beginning in a new, life long journey, and I’m sharing this in the hope that it will inform others, help raise awareness about both the disease and its causes, and maybe make it easier for others to talk about it.

As I read over this public log, I realize that I have left out, even forgotten about, various appointments and procedures. As I said, it all happened so fast (and so slow) and all the while I am trying to work, live my life, be a person? Cancer doesn’t care about your schedule, I am finding.

*  * *

I am not out of the woods. And I will be sharing my experiences here, as well as some information about what life changes I am making to make my body a less friendly environment to cancer. And that is something we all, now, need to think about.

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