Terry Ratner, RN, MFA | Feb 10, 2014, midnight
The surgery for an excision of a lump on my right breast was performed on a Monday morning. I’m groggy after my outpatient procedure and stumble around my house trying to act normal; clumsily fixing myself something to eat, tidying up the kitchen, and playing with my dog. After two hours, I tell my boyfriend I’m going upstairs to rest. I don’t remember much after getting into bed except when I opened my eyes again it was four hours later.
The biopsy results will be in tomorrow or the next day. The surgeon asked me to call his office on Wednesday for the pathology report. I went to work the following day feeling confident that my lump was benign and I had no intention of calling the doctor for the results. I knew if the report wasn’t favorable, I’d hear from the surgeon soon enough.
I was at work sitting at my desk the next morning when my surgeon dropped by.
“I’m so glad to see you,” I said as he walked in and pulled up a chair next to mine. “I want you to take a look at the incision.”
“Let’s not worry about that now,” he said.
“Are you bringing me bad news?” I asked him knowing the answer by studying his mannerisms; his directness, his somber looking face, and hearing the sternness in his voice.
“I just received your pathology report. The news isn’t good. You have Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.”
Just like that, I passed through an invisible membrane that separates the healthy from the ill.
“How bad is it?” I asked holding in a cry which I knew was forthcoming sometime in the future, but not now. No, not at my office with an open door to patients, their families, the community—the same group of people who would often come here after receiving this type of news. I couldn’t possibly cry at my desk. Not yet.
I placed my right hand on the doctor’s left thigh and said, “I can’t believe the news.” I wondered if my intimate action had breached some type of doctor-patient relationship. I didn’t really care. I had known him for years, worked with him and respected him. He was the only one here to comfort me. We had this secret. Thinking back, the simple gesture of touching his thigh with my fingertips was a way for me to feel closeness with another human, a kind of support I needed after hearing the devastating results of the biopsy. It was a silent way to communicate.
The surgeon and I had a long history—he operated on my husband when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He thought he got it all. He thought it might not spread. He was deeply moved when he told us six months later that the cancer had metastasized and he had tears in his eyes two years later when I told him I had just buried my husband.
“I’m hoping we caught it early. This is what you’ll need to do,” he told me as if he had a list prepared in his head.
“Wait one minute,” I said as I opened up Microsoft Word on my computer and positioned my fingers on the keyboard. “I’ll need to take notes because I’ll never remember what you’re about to tell me.”
Somehow it helped me to comprehend the news by concentrating on the next steps needed for treatment. It was a way to process the information by categorizing it, organizing the instructions in terms of what to expect, what was to come, the exact order, including time constraints between each treatment.
Small Grade I
Invasive Ductal Carcinoma
MRI of both breasts
Second surgery in two weeks (Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy)
Oncotype DX test
Brachytherapy radiation versus partial breast radiation
I thanked the surgeon for personally coming into my office to discuss the results. I sat in shock after he left trying to digest what he said, trying to convince myself it wasn’t a dream, it really happened. I have breast cancer.
Terry J. Ratner, RN, MFA is a health educator at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. Visit her website at www.terryratner.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.