04/23/2012 11:54 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2012

Taking My Lumps

It was Wednesday of Holy Week at about four-thirty in the morning, and I was where I always am at four-thirty in the morning: at my desk trying to crack myself up. I subscribe to the Mel Brooks school of humor which says, "If you laugh, they're going to laugh" so I always take my giggling -- if I'm giggling -- as a good sign, and not the precursor to early onset dementia my sons insist it is.

Usually, the only parts of my body that move when I'm working are my fingers when I finally come up with something to say and start typing, and then my head when I re-read what I've written and start pounding it against the keyboard.

And now you know the real reason I wear bangs -- they hide the bruises.

On that particular morning, the dust on my screen was distracting me. I blew on it, but that didn't work. I cursed the woman who's supposed to clean this place and then laughed because, well, that's me and I've been on strike for quite sometime. And then finally I just leaned in, like a lazy slob, and wiped it away with the sleeve of my sweatshirt.

And that's when I felt it. My right arm brushed my right breast and there it was: a nice, hard lump near my armpit. Such a discovery will undo you anytime. But if you happen to make such a find just nine days before the one year anniversary of your husband's death from cancer, trust me when I tell you, you will flip out.

I certainly did.

I didn't know what to do first, so I did everything at once. I ripped off my sweatshirt, pulled my tee shirt over my head, and sent the following calm, collected, "I was a cancer caregiver so I never lose my cool" text to two of my girlfriends. "OMG!!! Who's your doctor???? There's a lump in my breast the size of a malted milk ball!" Then, while frantically awaiting their replies which, since it was four-thirty in the morning took awhile to arrive, I basically molested myself in the privacy of my own living room. This lasted about a minute and then, when poking at the damn thing with my finger didn't make it disappear, I raced to the bathroom where I stood half naked staring at myself in the mirror and mumbling, Oh my God, I can see it. I can actually see it!

Hmm, I thought briefly. If this thing's adding to my spectacularly negligible cup size, who am I to complain? And then I realized my sons are right. I definitely have early onset dementia.

A short while later, having obtained the names of two doctors, one of whom is actually my doctor (I just forgot about her in the midst of my panic attack), and been talked in off the ledge by both girlfriends, I left for a job interview. A normal person would've cancelled and made a doctor appointment or shown up at the door and begged to be seen. But no, I soldiered on and spent sixty minutes trying not to say things like, "Yes, that was a highly successful program we did at Family Circle particularly since, at the time, I didn't have a lump the size of a Subaru in my breast!"

Clearly it's my flair for exaggeration and not dementia that will ultimately do me in.

Unless cancer gets me first.

Of course that's all I could think about in the hours preceding my doctor appointment. At the hair salon, Yes, please, pin straight, no product, and would you like to look at my lump? And the supermarket, A sale on fresh chicken breasts? So yours are acting up, too! And on the sidelines at my son's flag football practice, Monster catch, Cuyler! Now, who here wants to see something really scary?

As you can imagine, I didn't sleep but I did use the time productively. I dug out my life insurance policy, re-read it, and cried because we'd finally have money and I wouldn't be around to spend a single cent at Kate Spade, put it with my will (to which I also attached a chapter from 500 Acres and No Place to Hide entitled "No Goody-bags at This Girl's Funeral" because while I do want food, drink and dancing at my repast, I draw the line at pretty velvet satchels packed with my cremains) and rearranged my shoe closet according to girlfriend (rockin' hot fur boots: Lisa T.; sophisticated Michael Kors pumps: Trish; sexy little leopard print sling-backs: Lisa O.; pricey but painful Louboutins: Kim; gorgeous, open-toed, sky-high Guess pumps: Jenn, etc., etc.). I realize they won't fit any of my friends as none of us wears the same size, but still, it's the thought that counts. And I do want them thinking of me.

Hey, cut me some slack. I'm the one with the lump the size of a Lear jet.

By mid-morning on Holy Thursday I was finally, mercifully, in the examining room. Dr. Hoebel walks in all blonde and beautiful and business-like, asks how I am and I respond by ripping off my shirt.

"How am I? I think I'm dying, that's how I am. And it's so not fair. Stu's gone a year next Friday and this," I reply, stabbing the damn lump which I swear has made the leap from Lear jet to Mauna Loa since the last time I checked, "is the anniversary gift I get! I'm petrified. That's how I am. My kids are going to wind up in foster care. Or worse. With family!"

She laughs and I'm a little relieved. Even at death's door I still kill. And that'll be a twenty-five dollar cover and a two drink minimum. Here, let me stamp your hand.

"Susan, it's probably just a swollen lymph node," she replied, examining me.

Huh. I hadn't thought of that. Ok, I had. But only for a sec. A swollen lymph node's easy, but I'm just not that lucky.

"I'm sending you for an ultrasound and maybe a mammogram. But only if the ultrasound is suspicious," she continued, "which it won't be. Ok?"

I wanted to ask her to pinky swear, do the whole "cross her heart hope to die, stick a needle in her eye" thing, but the needle bit screamed BIOPSY! so I stifled myself.

And then the real fun began. My local hospital couldn't take me until Wednesday, and this place in Haymarket that I'd never even heard of couldn't do it until Tuesday. Tuesday! Five full, frightening, What in hell will I tell my boys if it's bad? days away, and three days before the anniversary of my husband's death. I was practically paralyzed with fear, but not so paralyzed that I couldn't wield a wine glass.

And now you know how I spent Easter weekend. Drinking in the evening and barely able to put two words together in the morning. By Tuesday, not even hair like Cousin "It" could hide the damage I'd done to my forehead.

But alas, Tuesday did finally dawn. I jumped in the car with my bruises, what I was certain was a now Saturn-sized lump and doctor's orders for an ultrasound and maybe a mammogram. I also brought directions to the hospital and called the nice people at OnStar as an extra insurance policy to make sure I got there (and because I really get a kick out of trying to get someplace in Virginia with an assist from "Dave" in New Delhi).

I got lost anyway. I always do. I'm unsure what happens first when I'm in the car. The panic attack and then the realization that the sign I just passed shouldn't say "Welcome to West Virginia" or the sign followed by the panic attack followed by my pulling over on the side of the road crying and wondering if this time I really do need a rescue chopper.

Eventually though, I arrived, checked in, promised them my first born male child should my health insurance refuse to cover me for some reason, and was ushered into a waiting room. Between getting lost and panicking, and having convinced myself that both didn't bode well, I was wrecked and really hoping to be alone with my lump. Not a chance. There were two older ladies already waiting and who greeted me with such sweet smiles and offers of bottled water, trail mix, tissues and genuine concern that I just wanted to crawl into their laps. In short order we were talking, noshing, swilling and sharing our respective reasons for being there. Ok, they shared. I hesitated. Big mistake. They knew. They just knew. And then they wanted to know if my husband was waiting for me in the reception room.

"Um, yeah, no." I replied. "He died."

Stunned silence and then, "Bless your heart. And you didn't you bring a friend with you?"

Nah, I thought, shaking my head. It's just me and Mauna Loa.

"When did he die?"

"Friday will be a year."

And then it was my turn to hand out tissues. Great, Suz, I thought. Mel Brooks would not be pleased.

Luckily, a couple of techs came along for the ladies and I picked up a copy of Real Simple which I really was trying to read when the lights went out. And came back on. And went out again. And then came on but only via generator which gave the room the same comforting feeling one gets watching a slasher film.

That's when the camel's back broke. How many more signs did I need? I was done. God had spoken. I had my diagnosis. I was dying and I was leaving. But not before going to the ladies room.

Getting there was relatively easy. I followed the little grey lights along the floor and bumped head on into a security guard who was none too pleased not to see me and who said, and I quote, "You really want to go in there? It's pitch black." And I was like, "Buddy, I'm a mom. You have no idea what we can do in the dark."

Just between you and me, I should've held it in, suffered and scrammed. The bathroom was so dark I had to open the door a crack just to locate the toilet. I stood there with what little light there was streaming in, saw the toilet and thought, Ok Suz, your butt belongs over there. And then I locked the door, turned, and strolled confidently into the sink. It took two more tries but I finally found the bowl, felt around for the toilet paper dispenser, put eight zillion strips all over the seat, and sat down.

Ah, sweet relief. But only until the instant I stood to pull up my underpants and caught my charm bracelet in the lace. This can't be happening, I thought feeling the panic make a repeat appearance and the sweat stream down the back of my neck. Isn't it enough I'm dying, God? I demanded. You need to butcher my blow out, too?

My brain raced. I couldn't see my hands in front of my face, which was fine, really, as lifting my left one would've given me a wedgie and using both to reach down and grab my jeans just resulted in all kinds of unwanted southern exposure. I didn't know what to do so I stood there, bent over in the pitch black, practically naked and cursing my bracelet and my stupid boob. And then I heard the tech calling my name.

"Mrs. McCorkindale?" Pause. "Am I saying that correctly? Mrs. McCorkindale? Are you still here?"

"In here!" I yelled instantly, all fears of embarrassment and charges of indecent exposure evaporating. Hell, she's a medical professional. She's seen it all. What's one more half-naked woman? I hobbled in the direction of the door, opened it a bit and yelled, "Yes, I'm here! Help!"

Seconds later, by the light of the tech's cell phone, I freed myself from my Hanky Pankys, and just seconds after that I was on the table having Mauna Loa measured.

"It's amazing you can do this without real, honest-to-goodness power," I said.

"We have a pretty good generator," she replied, pressing the ultrasound wand hard and deep into my breast and armpit. "And you," she continued, pointing, clicking, and taking half a dozen images of my tiny ta-ta, "have a big old swollen lymph node."

Then she got the radiologist who confirmed it wasn't cancer and I started to cry. It was so sweet because they both hugged me and gave me tissues and the tech offered me a bottle of water which cracked us both up. I thanked her again for quite literally saving my butt, and walked out into the sunshine.

And then I drove home without getting lost which was good, because really? I'd taken enough lumps lately.

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