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Dance Like Nobody's Watching

Dance Like Nobody's Watching

When I received a phone call from my HMO telling me that my recent mammogram was inconclusive, I didn’t panic. Breast cancer did not run in my family, so the vague, irregular density they had detected in my right breast was probably nothing more than a lab error. It was simply one of those inconveniences that couldn’t be avoided, so I obediently returned to the Kaiser Permanente Breast Center for a second mammogram. After this second film was developed, a stony-faced technician led me down the hall to the radiologist’s office.

The radiologist had both of my mammograms fastened to a lighted panel on the wall. He pointed to the questionable area on the film. It certainly did appear vague. In fact, to me, it didn’t look like anything at all. The doctor explained that this mass was probably nothing, but to be on the safe side, I should have a biopsy. Of the two choices offered, I selected the needle biopsy. Painless. I’d be in and out in the time it would take to have my hair done.

He then asked me if I had a surgeon. Why in the world would I have a surgeon? I blindly selected Dr. Janice Schilling mostly because I liked the pleasant sound of her name. The radiologist said I had made a wise choice. The biopsy was scheduled for the following Tuesday morning.

I had a stereotactic needle biopsy that entailed removing nine core samples of tissue from my breast. They had lied about it being painless, but once the procedure was over I needed only a few Tylenol tablets to manage the discomfort. Dr. Schilling called two days later.

“Mrs. Rosen,” she said, “I’m afraid I have bad news.”

“Cancer?” I whispered. My own voice sounded like a distant echo trembling through my head. It wasn’t my voice at all.

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

I sat in stupefied silence while her words registered in my brain. Breast cancer? I had breast cancer? How could this be possible? I was suddenly a skydiver who’d hit the ground without a parachute.

I finally said, “What happens next?”

“How soon can you get to my office?” she asked.

“Thirty minutes.”

“I’ll be waiting for you.”

I went to find my husband, Morrie. He was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper, having a cup of coffee. When I told him, the color drained from his face, as if the news had somehow bleached the life out of him. He took me in his arms and held me. I felt numb, too numb even to cry. We got into the car and drove the twenty miles to the hospital, mostly in silence.

As promised, Dr. Schilling was waiting in her office. She came from behind her massive desk, effectively removing any physical barriers, and sat next to me. She frequently reached out and touched me. The radiologist had been right. I’d made a very wise choice when I’d selected this gentle woman to lead me through the alien territory of breast cancer.

Dr. Schilling explained my pathology report, informing me that I had a cancerous tumor in one of the many lobules (milk glands) in my right breast. The cancer was described as invasive or infiltrating, which meant it had spread out of the lobule where it had started, growing into the surrounding tissue. Surgery was my best option. Dr. Schilling was optimistic; however, because the cancer had been discovered early, and she went on to clarify the pros and cons of lumpectomy versus mastectomy.

My world had just fallen apart, and yet I was supposed to make calm, rational decisions and select my preferred form of surgery. I sat there feeling strangely detached from reality. I was hearing unfamiliar terms like infiltrating lobular carcinoma, estrogen receptor stains, lymph nodes, radiation, and chemotherapy, but my mind was still wrestling with that one word: cancer.

Not so long ago, cancer was a word that wasn’t spoken. When it happened to others, we discussed the patient’s prognosis in hushed whispers, without ever really uttering the word. Cancer was just too dreadful, too frightening. This couldn’t be happening to me, yet there I was sitting in a surgeon’s office, hearing that word over and over.

I scheduled surgery for the following Monday morning, December 4, 1995. Next, I was given instructions to go through the maze of procedures called pre-op. Following the blood work, X-rays, and an EKG, I met with a nurse who explained what was going to happen to me before, during, and after surgery. I was given written instructions in case I forgot anything. I held onto those instructions for dear life because I’d forgotten every word she’d said even before we left her office.

Half way through my pre-op appointments, we went to the hospital cafeteria for a bite to eat. I forced myself to swallow without tasting the food. I was functioning like a robot. By the time we finally exited the hospital, it had grown late and a deep purple haze blurred the western sky. Like the evening sky, everything in my line of vision had become a blur. Morrie had his arm around my shoulder as we slowly trudged through the near-empty parking lot. We barely spoke and when we did, it was in a whisper.

That night I looked in the mirror and the full impact of this very long day finally registered. I had cancer. I wondered whether I would die. I wasn’t ready to die. I was only fifty-four.

Two years earlier we’d moved from Los Angeles to Thousand Oaks, California, seeking a smaller, less hectic community away from the bustle of the city, and Morrie had retired from his job as a stockbroker. Our life since the move had bordered on perfection, and we certainly had not planned on having something as insidious as cancer invading our idyllic new lifestyle. An old Jewish saying kept popping into my mind: “You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”