On a business trip last summer, I was standing in my hotel room brushing my teeth in front of a mirror in my pajamas when I first saw it. A lump. A big one. Protruding from of my left breast. Visible through my pajama tank top.
Despite the fact that women on both sides of my family had breast cancer, I long ago gave up performing my own monthly breast self-examinations, mostly because they feel like a bags of frozen peas to me. No matter how much my doctor has tried to explain over the years what a bad lump feels like, I wouldn't know a bad lump from an OK lump if it announced its arrival with a bullhorn.
I haven't ignored my genetic history. I had a baseline mammogram at age 35. Now that I am in my 40s, I added this annual diagnostic to my well-woman checkups. But truthfully, until now, I relied on my OB/GYN to check it all out once a year as I move on through my hurried life as a working, single mother of two for the other 364 days until I got around to my next annual exam.
So the lump.
My world stopped turning right there with Colgate foaming in my mouth. I slowly reached up to touch it hoping my eyes were deceiving me. No. It was huge. I am not a doctor but I know enough about the human body to know that sometimes when you are approaching your cycle cysts can swell -- they go down later -- nothing to worry about. I waited as patiently as possible. Two weeks later, no change. I dialed the phone slowly in what felt like an out of body experience to set my appointment.
A couple of weeks later, my mammogram proved abnormal followed by an abnormal ultrasound -- revealing a lump 5 centimeters/2 inches in diameter -- which was followed by a referral to an oncology breast specialist.
I was 41.
All my life, my mother dutifully instructed me to be a watchdog guardian of my gynecological health because her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 43. My grandmother Polly died two years later. Until last summer, that seemed so far away.
All of a sudden 45 just didn't seem so old anymore.
My mind raced with questions. I have only recently become comfortable and happy with my body. What would I say if the results came back for cancer? A self-advocate of my health, how would I want treat it? Would I want standard chemotherapy, a mastectomy or a homeopathic treatment? Would I want to have reconstructive surgery? Do I trust those saline bags in my body when I don't know that I trust anything the FDA approves?
The oncologist was reassuring. Prognosis? A ridiculously huge cyst the size of a small orange, but she agreed that a biopsy was in order -- along with the rest of the cornucopia of fruit I apparently have in there...a large strawberry right behind the orange, a plum-sized one on the right, still full of frozen peas. With no sleep from worry for weeks I asked her to send it off to pathology rather than leave my results to her naked eye. If there was one little cancer cell floating around in the eight ounces of fluid she had just removed from my own self-generated breast implant, I needed to know.
The pressure of waiting for information was crushing. I wanted to talk to someone but didn't want family and friends to worry unnecessarily. So I sat there wanting support but at the same time desperately wanting to just be alone to sort things through.
To pass time, I drove to New Orleans for a palm reading. Never had one before but it was on my bucket list. Time to start digging around in the bucket. Charlie, the mystical palm reader, realizing my distress, threw in a complimentary Tarot Card reading. According to my hand, my lifeline is split. I could live into my mid-90s if I learn how to chill out but will be toast by my 70s if I don't. All my cards pointed to a severe need for relaxation because I am overwhelmingly anal-retentive. He suggested I relax by spending more time in creative outlets -- write a book, play piano again, paint.
Charlie doesn't have a child with autism. I already spend my days working on autism issues -- with its puzzle piece ribbon in about every color of the rainbow. My plate is full. While I appreciate various and sundry other causes, I selfishly did not want to add a pink ribbon to my list. But I was lucky. My scare turned out to be just that: a bad scare. But the message was something my community in particular desperately needs to hear because as stressed-out moms raising children with autism, we often put our own health on the back burner while we spend every waking moment trying to help our children and keep our families afloat.
It was a good reminder that if I don't put the oxygen mask on myself from time to time, I might stop breathing all together, sooner than I imagined.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. With one in every eight women in our country being diagnosed with breast cancer, maybe every month should be breast cancer awareness month.
Do your monthly checks, even if yours feel like a bag of frozen peas.
Set your annual checkups. Take your vitamins. Don't feel selfish if you get a manicure or shave your legs.
Happy Mother's Day and take care of yourselves autism warrior moms -- the world needs you.
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