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During a staff meeting today, the conversation turned to what we were doing  this time last year, and I realized that I couldn’t remember much about it. Looking around the room at the faces of people I see every day, I wondered if any of them could detect my unease. Could they see that I am much different today from the woman I was last year?  Does it even matter? Surely changed and unsure, it was with some trepidation that I headed home to search through over a year’s worth of writing. When I landed on my first blog post, entitled “My New Pink Ribbon,” I held my breath. Not remembering what I had written and knowing that someone I know is undergoing a mastectomy today, I fell into the days before a Christmas past, when everything changed for me:

My First Blog Post: “My New Pink Ribbon”   Nov. 9, 2011

I have shown only a little restraint in not searching every corner of the internet for information about fine needle aspirations and core needle biopsies of the breast. The latter sounds more ominous. November 9th at 1:30pm, I was scheduled to go to Scottsdale Healthcare for a core needle biopsy.  Once again supine in a small room illuminated only by images on an ultrasound monitor and the kindness of two technicians, I was out of sync. My responses to questions were delayed, but I still had the presence of mind to tell them in no uncertain terms that I did not want to be talked through the procedure. I was discombobulated, I can only assume, by my own fear of what was in store for me. Then without fair warning, they had veered from the script I had prepared in my head. The doctor swiftly announced they would be doing three biopsies. Panic rising, the way it does when the pilot announces a little turbulence up ahead, I managed to ask, “Three?” Nobody had said anything about a third; I had barely begun to accept the existence of a second. Again, “Three?” Were they quite sure? How could there possibly be three tumors in a breast that had passed three mammograms? Discomfited by the almost reassuring response that, yes, the other doctor had ordered three biopsies, I settled in and soon found myself transfixed by the images on the monitor. Strangely hypnotic and relatively painless except when I allowed myself to consider the length of the hollow needle piercing my skin, advancing through three benign or cancerous somethings, and extracting tissue. Surreal. Stuff of The Learning Channel.

Had I known what they were doing by the time they got to the third one under my arm, I like to think I would have protested the metal marker being placed deep within my breast tissue, a marker in the shape of the ribbon synonymous with Susan G. Komen and a cure, a ribbon I’ve grown to detest. That, and doing things on the count of three.  “Relax. One. A little poke. Two. Lidocaine going in. Three.” And then a sound like a staple gun. “You’re doing great.” Three times, I did great. I did especially great on the third one which was awkwardly positioned. I didn’t realize just how awkward until the subsequent mammogram which was more like an undignified and ungainly dance, my partner a technician charged with compressing my small punctured breast between the two plates in such a manner that the surgeon would be able to see the new metal marker under my arm. Surgeon. Surgeon? Nobody had said anything about surgery. Or had they? I could not recall.  After much repositioning and squeezing and picture taking, someone in another room was  satisfied with the X-ray picture. A fleeting thought of the Wizard of Oz added a new dimension to the experience.

Finally, with a flourish and a smile, the technician presented what had been declared a satisfactory mammogram picture of my breast. There it was. Right there on the bottom right of the screen. A new metal tissue marker, fashioned in the shape of the ubiquitous breast cancer awareness ribbon. “See? There’s that cute little ribbon.” in my tissue. In me. Without my permission. Branded. Speechless.

Ironically and thankfully, all this took place after we had ushered out October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month (although early in November all those commercials were still airing). Until then, I’d considered the pink ribbon as not much more than a pretty embellishment on yogurt lids and bottles of water and Facebook badges, but as I found myself ever deeper in cancer country, that ribbon had begun to offend me. I could barely tolerate seeing one more, especially not one that had been inserted in my very tissue.

This new affront helped pass the time while I waited in another waiting room. In fact, I was so preoccupied by pink, that I was alarmed to notice the patch of red seeping from the biopsy site through to the front of my hospital-issued blue and white striped gown. I had not anticipated blood or ice-packs or the surprise mammogram, but I was beginning to learn that cancer brings one surprise after another. As I sat there, exposed and vulnerable, an icepack atop my bruised and bleeding breast, a lovely young stranger, dressed in a gown like mine, put her hand on my shoulder, looked me right in the eye and asked conspiratorially if “they” had poked me. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure what they had done. No matter, she assured me I would be in her prayers that evening.

It is a strange sisterhood indeed, where an instantaneous intimacy allows us to talk about being poked and staged and prayed for. It made me uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable had I been left out by language. Language is everything. Maybe it can be attributed to  my immigrant spirit, but I knew I had to learn the vocabulary, the rules, the norms for breast cancer patients gathered together in waiting rooms. And I had to learn quickly. Apart from the fact that I was well past the best age for learning a second language, I simply did not want to be immersed in this new culture.

I have other things to do. Christmas is coming. 

The pathology report would come back on November 11th, Veteran’s Day. The Breast Care Patient Navigator, a new one, called to tell me I should really bring someone with me – did I have a husband? I did? Oh, good. I should bring him along. She would see us both at 1PM on 11.11.11. I knew that bringing my husband would mean at least one of us would be able to listen, while the other  would focus on hearing the only words she wanted to hear with Christmas around the corner: Benign. Benign. Benign.

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