On this day eight months ago, Brad and I sat at the kitchen table as I answered the call we both knew I’d be receiving. A nurse on the other end of the line informed me I had breast cancer. She had very few details, told me I’d be receiving calls to schedule many more tests, and encouraged me to try to enjoy my weekend. It was scary, but not a shock. Because I already knew.
Many people have asked how I discovered my breast cancer. The truth is it took a blend of listening to my intuition, paying attention to my body and trusting a diligent medical team. I have no history of breast cancer in my immediate family, so it wasn’t really on my radar — except that two of my dearest childhood friends, Kelly and Lei, had recently been diagnosed.
Over lunch last June, Kelly started telling me about a cancer support group she was in, and how fascinating it was that everyone had different stories about how their cancer was discovered. One woman, she said, kept noticing that her bra would catch on a little bump in her armpit. When Kelly said that, a chill ran through me and I knew that for some reason, I needed to listen closely to this. I wasn’t sure if it was for me, or information I’d need to pass along to someone else, but it was like a neon sign flashing “pay attention!” I hadn’t been very diligent about doing self breast exams, so I decided that day that I would feel my boobs more often — and check my armpits, too. Just to give me peace of mind.
A few weeks before that, I was in the shower when my angels informed me that a “health scare” was coming. They didn’t seem panicked (they’re angels, after all!), but wanted me to be alert and to know they’d be around. This didn’t frighten me; it actually comforted me. Because I felt good and energized, I figured they weren’t referring to me — but probably to my oldest son, who was dealing with some medical mysteries at the time, from pain to fainting. By early July, his doctors were thinking he was going to need spinal cord surgery and that was an enormous worry for us. The angels’ message had been foreshadowing this, I thought; as scary as it was, I just kept reminding myself they called it a “health scare” and that, whatever unfolded, they’d be around to help.
To his doctors’ surprise, a second MRI revealed that Ryder wouldn’t need surgery after all. We were thrilled, and it felt like I could stop holding my breath and relax. I could tell stress had built up in my body and I needed to get back into some better self-care practices — including remembering to do a breast exam. When I did so, I remembered that neon sign from lunch several weeks before and checked my armpits. The right one felt swollen compared to the left. I pressed pretty deep and could feel a half dollar-sized lump; it was squishy and a little tender in there. When I moved my arm, it would move too, so I figured it was a swollen muscle or something. Just to be safe, I Googled breast cancer “lumps” and read that they usually feel like a rock-hard pea under your skin that doesn’t move. There were also lots of possible reasons for a swelling in the armpit, so I made a mental note of it and figured it would resolve itself.
But after three weeks or so, the weird lump was still there and felt like it was getting a tad bigger. I started paying more and more attention to it — more curious than worried. Have you ever had something show up on your body — a hangnail, a mole, a dry patch — that you couldn’t stop noticing or fiddling with? For me, it felt like this lump kept tapping on my shoulder, asking me to feel it again. And when that happens, I know my body is yelling at me to pay attention. I asked Brad to see if he could feel the lump; he agreed it felt kind of like a muscle, but urged me to get it checked out.
I made an appointment with one of my OBGYN’s nurses in late August. Upon examining it, she thought it was “probably nothing” but wanted me to see my doctor and get a mammogram just to be sure. I texted this to Brad and he gave me a thumbs up. And that, oddly enough, annoyed me. A thumbs up felt too cavalier, I told him later. “But you said it’s probably nothing,” he said. My response? “Yeah, but ‘probably nothing’ doesn’t mean it’s absolutely nothing!” He tilted his head to look at me, rightfully confused, wondering how I was seeing bad news in what sounded like good news. That’s not my usual way of seeing things. And I’m not one to get irritated easily. I took a deep breath and recognized this was another signal to myself. Deep down, I quietly realized, I was sensing it was something.
On September 6th, the kids went off to school and I went to see my OBGYN, whom I adore. Upon examination, she also said the lump was “probably nothing” but agreed a 3D mammogram was important to find out for sure. I went in that afternoon to a very highly respected breast cancer center in Minneapolis. I’d never had a mammogram before; I was 43 and most women in the U.S. are not advised to start having them till age 45. To tell you the truth, at my annual check-up a year before, my doctor asked if I wanted to have one anyway. I said sure, and she gave me the information to make an appointment. I remember feeling that though I had no physical signs of illness, it was really important that I go get checked. But you know what? I still avoided it. Like so many other women, I kept putting it off. I had too much on my plate and squeezing my boobs into a machine seemed like an unnecessary nuisance. Plus, I think there was a piece of me that suspected something was happening in there — and I was too scared at that point to find out about it.
Fast forward to last September, as I stood topless with my right breast hoisted onto a cold platform. When the technician told me she needed some additional images of my right side, I just knew it in my bones — she’d found the something. Turned out she’d found multiple somethings. In my breast and in my lymph nodes. They needed to biopsy both areas, and the doctor could make it happen that day. As I laid on the table and listened to her talking with the nurses, I could tell she was new there or a floater from another facility, not used to the instruments they had on-site. She’d never done a biopsy with the specific tool they had, she whispered. That did not instill confidence! As she stood next to me marking where the needles needed to go in, I talked to the angels in my head. “Okay, maybe this is the health scare you were talking about. I need your help. Is there an angel who specializes in this, who can steady this doctor’s hands and help her get whatever she needs?”
I’m not kidding you, at that moment a gigantic angel swooped in right behind the doctor — a gauzy light with wings towering over her. The needle went in, I gasped (probably more at the angel than at the poke!), and the doctor suddenly declared, “Oh wow! That was easy!” The nurses laughed nervously, I quietly thanked the angels, and the doctor said I’d be informed the next day of the results. As I got dressed, I knew in every cell of my body that my life was about to change — and that I had an army of angels at the ready to help me through.
That night, when Brad got home, I told him we’d be getting a call the next day to inform me I had breast cancer. He didn’t try to convince me otherwise; he knows when I know. And as absurd as the nurse’s recommendation sounded, I did enjoy that weekend. After bursting into tears on the phone with my friend Lori and commiserating with a circle of friends over wine, I decided it would do me no good to wallow. So I soaked up time with my family in the sunshine, painted with the angels, we had dinner with old friends and I repeatedly envisioned myself moving through this journey — wherever it led — with grace and hope. Some days I’m better at that than others, but I every day I feel so grateful for all the support around me — earthly and divine. And thankful to my lymph nodes for swelling up to send me a message. And so relieved that I didn’t wait to feel a “typical” lump in my breast; my doctors say those tumors were so deep that by the time I would have felt them, there would have been little they could do to help.
I share all of this to encourage you to listen closely, know your body and save yourself. Pay attention to the signals you get, in whatever forms they come. Find doctors that turn over every stone instead of stopping at “probably nothing.” Trust that there are angels waiting in the wings for you. Your life is precious and you are here to be a light in the world. We all are. So do the things you need to do to stick around and shine, okay? Okay. xo
For periodic updates on my health journey, check out the LiftingLiv.com site made and maintained by amazing friends.
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