Warning: This blog has breasts.
A month ago, while in Seattle, I discovered that a skin tag to the right of my breastbone and on the breast surface had developed into a palpable, skittish lump. I immediately called my gynecologist’s office, and spoke with the nurse on call.
“It looks and feels like a subcutaneous cyst,” I began, “I can lift it, and I see something when I squeeze it.” I have had two removed from my back in the last year, leaving jagged, deep scars. Hence the know-it-all language.
“Stop squeezing it,” she said calmly over the 3,000 miles,”I can get you into the Breast Center — no wait, they don’t have any appointments — how about a doctor — no wait everyone is on vacation — ok the physicians assistant can see you in two weeks.”
Hmmmm. No crisis management available here.
I hung up and went to Green Lake to walk it off. I envisioned all the worst scenarios. You know what I was thinking, we are all no-degree of separation from this. I do not have genes in my favor. But a curious thing happened on my second lap: I realized I had no control of the organics of this lump. But I had control of my response, my well-being, and my sanity. I jogged a little. I sat on the grass. I took deep breaths.
Never good at following directions, having squeezed the bump fifty times every day, it was difficult to see the problem from the black, blue and yellow breast tissue that covered most of my left breast when I left for Boston two weeks later. Within twelve hours of landing I was on a scale. What? Someone tell me why appointments about breasts begin on a scale, like this isn’t hard enough. What good is that information? And wearing a fetching, faded, open-to-the-front gown, shivering in the frigid AC, perched on a crinkly paper-laid table. After telling the story of the Lump to the intake nurse, I waited alone in the icebox with only breast diagrams to read for twenty minutes. Anxiety nicely elevated, I heard the swish of my chart being pulled, and the physician’s assistant pushed through the door. I then had to repeat the story all over again.
Ok, I reasoned to myself, she wants to hear it from me. But why did I tell the first nurse all the same information? Didn’t anyone have anything else to do around here? I warned her about the bruised tissue — “The color? All my doing” — before she examined me. She raised her eyebrows. After the exam, she confirmed the Lump, and the cyst idea. She suggested a dermatologist.
‘But it’s in my breast tissue, shouldn’t I see a breast person?” I asked. Pardon me for vanity. I was going for breast expert AND plastic surgeon if I had to have a knife there.
“Sure,” she conferred, ‘we’ll fax the information over to the breast center, then they will call you in a few days and give you an appointment.”
Well, if there is one thing I have learned, be your own advocate. I left with the phone number and called three minutes later from the car.
After a long wrangle with ‘their new computer system,’ I believed I had an appointment. “I think I have released the time for you,'” the frazzled voice at the Breast Center said. Another week wait. Meanwhile I really tried to stop touching it and checking on the size. Really I did.
Four weeks from the first phone call, I arrived at The Breast Center in Danvers at 12:45 for my 1:00 appointment. Honestly, I sweated the entire way there, not for the obvious reasons — my mind would not stay on the mat — there had been no confirmation call, and there probably wasn’t an appointment, and I’d be waiting another three weeks. Then I gripped the wheel and said ‘Lordy, you have no control over THAT either. Just get to the stupid appointment without an accident.”
Every intake desk was empty but one (lunch break) and the famous new computer system could not find the code for my health care provider and there was no one to ask in the office. After much tapping and apologizing, the consent form finally spit out of the printer twenty-five minutes later and I signed my name.
At 1:30 I was escorted to a room by a suspiciously un-medical looking young lady, then had to recite all my medical history and family medical history while she searched for the right places to click on the large monitor above the keyboard. “New system?” I said conversationally. She never had eye contact, concentrating so hard on the keys.
She then took my blood pressure, snapping the cuff around my arm and dashing back to her computer while it wheezed.
“Did you have coffee this morning? Your blood pressure numbers are a little high.”
“Ummm, yes? a triple espresso?” But the bubble over my head read: “I betcha this number would be high anyways at this point.”
At 1:45, I wrestled my bad shoulder into a teal, open-to-the-front gown, obviously sewn for women with matchstick arms. And waited another thirty minutes. This time, prepared, I ignored the large wall of breast diagram posters labeled ‘benign’ and ‘malignant (take my blood pressure now and you might have to admit me) and read my New York Times.
At 2:30, the physician assistant arrived. I then had to repeat ALL the same information, while she figured out how to enter it into yet another series of files. “Having fun with your new computer system? I’m very familiar with it by now.” I am going to guess I was coming off rude.
I cannot even begin to tell you what I was thinking, even though she was a lovely woman. Is this process secretly testing for Alzheimer’s? Are they comparing answers from Round #1 (How often do you drink? Do you take drugs? Is your home safe?) to see if I remember to answer the same way? Who would tell the truth about drugs anyways? I silently chastised myself for not taking this entirely more seriously, but come on, they weren’t taking my sanity seriously. I had been in the building almost two hours.
Yes, this is a subcutaneous cyst. I learned a malignant lump would cling to the breast wall, not float under my fingers. The breast tissue would pull, or dimple, where the lump situated. And no, I am not supposed to rub, squeeze or push on this cyst (becomes larger, hurts more). Follow up in three months, with an ultrasound and removal if still there.
I don’t like these dress rehearsals. I have been by the side of too many friends that went through the real deal. But stepping a little outside myself, I watched a really dysfunctional, slow and expensive system sort-of deal with what could have been much more dire. I walked through the sliding doors to the parking lot grateful I was young enough, and aggressive enough and calm enough to have made it through.
I inhaled deeply when I got to the car.
Next time? I will hope there isn’t one. But I will probably be more pushy, and more demanding.
People, it’s the only way.