One small spot can turn a life upside down

October 08, 2006|By Shaun Borsh | Shaun Borsh,Special to The Sun

I look at the black-and-white silhouette of my left breast, backlit with fluorescent light. Someone has drawn, in red pen, two half-inch parallel lines above and below a dark spot. The knot in my stomach tells me this pesky little spot may play havoc with my life.

The technician tells me to remove my left arm from the hospital gown and relax my shoulder. Her instruction lacks warmth, and I do what I'm told.

Just a month before, the first technician had been kind and friendly, apologizing for her cold hands. Today, the detached voice repeats, "Relax your shoulder." She places my breast on a small tray-table, sets it in the preferred position and pulls a lever on the machine marked ultra-squash.

A plexiglass plate compresses me against the tray-table. The technician doesn't release the lever, and the panel continues to flatten me into a misshapen pancake. The grip takes my breath away, which is good, because I am instructed not to breathe. The image is recorded as the machine makes a clicking sound and the panel relinquishes my flesh.

I step away from the equipment, and the technician changes the position of the tray-table. She makes a show of widening her feet, shoulder-length apart. I mimic her movement. "No," she tells me, "you stand closer, facing the machine." I comply and am seized by shoulder and breast and twisted into place. "Don't breathe," she says. Instantly, the compression plate takes hold and the clicking resumes.

My eyes sting with tears and I feel another pressure, a dreamlike, silent scream. I am told to sit and wait for the images to be reviewed by the radiologist. "You'll have an answer before you leave."

The letter had arrived 10 days earlier, explaining that my annual mammogram required further examination. No worries, I thought, as most callbacks for a mammogram result in a normal outcome.

Waiting for the results of the second exam, I look across the room and see the picture with the tiny, dark spot. How odd that I can make out this pinpoint when I couldn't tell an ear from a nose on my children's sonograms. Why is this spot confronting me?

Cancer. I am in need of distraction. I pick up an old news magazine but can't muster interest in the women of al-Qaida or Brad Pitt's emotional infidelity. Instead, I start to make a mental list of things I have yet to do with my kids: make chocolate pie, visit the San Diego Zoo, teach them how to clean a bathroom and introduce them to decent poetry.

My daughter has yet to learn that the confidence she derives from being herself will project into all of her relationships. My son will need to know that expressing his feelings will help keep him, and the ones he loves, emotionally unharmed. I'm not finished instilling in them that the kindness they share with others will ultimately ensure the joy they find in themselves.

I think of my husband and how I want to kiss him on a crisp, fall day in Manhattan, walk the beach at sunrise and wake up with him every morning for the next 50 years.

My thoughts become comically maudlin. Will my husband take our children shopping for shoes or will they wear sneakers and flip-flops to my funeral? Will my friends shave their heads while I endure chemotherapy? Will cancer help me lose 15 pounds?

Two months pass, and I am sitting in the surgical waiting room at Mercy Medical Center.

The surgeon strides toward me and says, "Everything went well. Your husband is fine."

"He's OK?"

"Yes."

You see, after the radiologist told me that my mammogram was normal - no breast cancer - my husband was diagnosed with a melanoma.

The pesky, little dark spot found me after all; not through my breast but my heart.

We are fortunate and I am grateful - the melanoma was superficial.

While Chris is on the mend, I am busy with our kids, cleaning bathrooms, reading poetry and making chocolate pie.

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