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I Wasn't Supposed to Get Breast Cancer

Photograph by Getty Images

Math and statistics have never been my strong suit, and my aversion to them has only grown worse since December 18, which is the day I had my first-ever mammogram.

“Don’t be surprised if we call you back for another mammogram,” the technician told me. “Since this is your first one, we have nothing to compare it to, so if we see anything that seems even remotely unusual, we will have you come back in. A large percentage of first-timers come back for a second one straight away and it’s usually fine.”

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Sure enough, two days later my gynecologist told me I needed to do it again after calcifications were spotted in my right breast.

“But I don’t feel anything on the exam,” she assured me. “This can be totally normal, especially since you breast-fed. I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. Chances are it all will be OK."

Except that after the second mammogram, I was told I needed a biopsy.

“Unscientifically, 95 percent of the women who get mammograms with us every year are fine,” an oncology nurse at the local hospital told me. “I just know you’re going to be OK. Well, of course I don’t actually know it, but I have a good feeling about it.”

Fast-forward to my breast cancer diagnosis on January 6, and just like that, my lifelong faith that percentages and luck will turn out in my favor is shattered beyond recognition.

The first breast surgeon with whom I consulted told me she’d need to take out a few sentinel lymph nodes to rule out the possibility that the cancer had left the ducts and traveled elsewhere. My research tells me that it’s a reasonable move, even if the thought of those lymph nodes and what secrets they might be hiding are a contributing factor to my insomnia.

I’ve been told that there’s a 5 to 10 percent chance I’ll develop lymphedema following my surgery. I’m also clinging to the 97 percent chance the cancer won’t return after my bilateral mastectomy if my cancer is, indeed, limited to the ducts. If the cancer has spread, my 5-year chances of survival would go down at least few percentage points, even more depending on the extent of the invasion. Sure, single-digit percentages are low, unless you start thinking of them in terms of your mortality. And when you’re awake thinking about it at 3 a.m., the light at the end of the tunnel is way too distant and dim to be able to go back to sleep.

It seems that most everyone would like to think they’re part of the good majority, not the bad minority.

Then I had a phone consultation with one of the top breast surgeons in the country, who, when she heard the size of the affected area in my breast, told me I should reasonably expect there could be a 25 percent chance the cancer is, indeed, invasive.

“But if I were you,” she said, “I would think of it instead as a 75 percent chance that it’s not.”

I hear what she’s saying and I appreciate her candor and optimism. But I’d rather not be shocked, as I was on January 6, if after the surgery I come back to unwanted news. I’d like to think my glass is half full compared to so many others under the breast cancer diagnosis umbrella, but when you get even just a bit damp when you were trying so hard to stay dry, the consolation is soggy at best.

It seems that most everyone would like to think they’re part of the good majority, not the bad minority—we’re all invincible, right? I’ve always been a member of the former. This is my first foray into the latter. Trust me when I say that it’s not the better place to be, and not only that, but once you’re part of the bad percentage, it can feel tougher than swimming up Niagara Falls to get back in the graces of the good group. If there’s ever been a right time to work on not worrying about what I can’t control, it’s now.

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I’m comforted that the surgeons I’ve settled on have bedside manners such that they seem to see me as more than numbers and figures; but they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t at least relay to me what they know about all of the data they’ve amassed in their highly educated brains. Better them than me, for sure. I just wish I still didn’t see so many of those numbers lurking behind my eyelids when I close them each night.

I always knew math would come back to haunt me someday, I just never imagined it could get any scarier than calculus.

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