After my GYN voiced her concern over my boob, I waited in the room while she made some appointments. I took the moment to call my friend and tell her what I knew so far: I didn’t know much, but it didn’t look good. Boy, a friendly voice sure sounded great just then. I wasn’t alone. It grounded me and gave me a little bump as I walked four blocks to the radiologist.
And as I waited for the subsequent mammogram and ultrasound that day I found myself alone. Alone with time to think. When you are a single adult woman living alone in New York City (or any metropolis), you get very used to doing things on your own. When you’re sick you drag your sorry butt out of the apartment, hail a cab, and shuffle off to the docs by yourself. You learn how to maneuver a shopping cart on concrete sidewalks loaded with groceries, dry goods, a cat carrier, and the slice of pizza you grabbed for lunch. If you’re smart, you learn how to ask people for their help and to offer your help. Being self-reliant isn’t enough when you’re facing a life-changing event alone.
So as I waited I texted my friend, Leslie, and told her I found a lump and I was waiting for tests to be done. She immediately responded with surprise, of course, but offered much needed support. We joked back and forth. I told her that I wanted to turn over a car because I was so mad. She warned that if I did that I’d better get on video and upload it to YouBoob. We exchanged barbs and had a good laugh. It was just what I needed at that moment.
The next day, after I visited with the surgeon, I sent another text: “Fuck me. Looks like it’s a carcinoma, Les.” She replied right away, told me it was a damned shame, and then said her first thought it taking care of me. What am I going to need? Who’s going to be there with me? What could she do for me?
When I began to share the news with my friends, their response was the same. First, they shared their disappointment and then they voiced their concern and support. I needed to tell my friends because that helped me deal.
My colleagues have been overwhelmingly supportive. They’ve offered assistance, stopped in the hall to ask how I am, referred me to other colleagues who were similarly challenged, and offered to pitch in going forward. One of my colleagues, with whom I’ve had some intense fights on the battlefield and no love lost in the bargain, came to me and said that she was sorry to hear about the diagnosis and wanted to pitch in and help in whatever way she could. It was genuine and I was touched. We will undoubtedly go to blows again, but that day we both signed on to a truce. Amicably and with no judgments.
I finally had the opportunity to tell my mom last week. I wanted to tell her and my sister together. But my brother-in-law was dying (lung cancer) and it was looking unlikely that I’d be able to bring them together. So I told mom alone. “Mom, I have breast cancer.” Well, she cried and cried, as you might expect. She worried about me living alone. Who would take care of me? How would I take care of everyday things with surgery and possible chemotherapy in my future? How would I get back and forth from the doctors and treatments? Why couldn’t she be a little younger so she could come to New York and take care of me? Why couldn’t she be the one who got this instead of her youngest child?
It took a bit for the news to sink in. But when it did she was okay. It was okay for her to be angry, to feel remorse, to be concerned. It was okay to cry. She still has my back and I know it.
My brother-in-law subsequently died and I got the only chance to tell my sister, over the telephone. She was taken aback, wished that she lived closer, but immediately reassured me that I would be okay. I was not to worry about this. I would see her later that evening, as everyone was gathered for a BBQ and decompressed.
When I visited with everyone that evening, I knew that this was a time to mourn the passing of a husband, father, and grandfather and I had no desire to intrude on that. Heck, truth be told he was neither my favorite person nor was he smarter than a box of hair, but I empathized with their loss and wanted to express that to them. I hugged each of my nephews and their wives, my grand-nephews, and I expressed my sincere condolences.
I decided that before I left, I was going to tell my niece and one of my nephews about the boob. But before I did, I checked with my sister to see if she had said anything. “Oh, they all know.”
Oh. I had no idea. Not one word had been spoken.
Not one word for the few hours we chatted about work, and milestones, and food, and music, and cars, and trips, and beer, and houses, and kids, and jobs, and neighbors, and iPads, and . . .
As I said my goodbyes, my youngest nephew, with whom I’ve always shared a special relationship, hugged me and told me that I would be okay and that we would talk. No drama, no occasion, nothing grandiose. Just a hug. That’s all you need. My niece said nary a word, but as she walked by my chair earlier she touched my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. That was all I needed.
Turns out when people care it comes through all the time. Even a text message from a good friend feels like the bear hug of a lifetime. That back and forth texting silliness in a moment of uncertainty and fear was like a basket of freshly baked rolls.
But silence is, indeed, just what it is. Nothing.
And when you’re faced with a life altering event, I sure as hell don’t need an empty basket. But I sure know where to get a basket of warm rolls should I need them.