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You Have “a” Cancer – Part One

The following is an excerpt from my memoir – Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person:  A memoir about cancer as I know it. 

Today is April 29, 2010. It is the day I wait for the biopsy result which will determine my future. So much is riding on this one little phone call. I keep busy all morning long, confident no news will be delivered early in the day.

Doctors make such phone calls at the end of their work day, I tell myself. Bad news will be delivered late in the day.

It will be put off because who wants to deliver bad news?

I busy myself with more cleaning, more laundry and more journaling, but mostly more waiting.

As the day goes by, I start feeling more and more on edge. It must be bad news.

For much of the afternoon, I lie on the sofa and attempt to settle in with my latest Grisham novel, but I only pretend to concentrate. The only story line I can concentrate on is my own. My dogs, Elsie and Sophie, wait with me.

I decide to give the clinic until 4 o’clock to call, and then I will call them. Minutes tick away on the large, round clock behind the TV, but no call comes. Four o’clock passes. I wait another ten minutes. Those minutes pass as well; I determine I’ll wait just five more.

Finally, I realize I cannot wait any longer or everyone at the clinic will be leaving for the day, and I will be forgotten. I muster up enough courage, make the call and leave a message with the receptionist who promises to deliver it to my doctor right away.

Minutes later, my doctor’s nurse calls and announces, “Nancy, your doctor isn’t in this afternoon, and I don’t have your results. I’m really so sorry.”

“What?” I ask. “Well, I’m sorry, too, but this is totally unacceptable. I was told I’d be called today with the results.”

My heart starts pounding far faster than it is supposed to, and anger starts to rise up from somewhere inside, but I know I cannot let it burst out of me. You cannot allow yourself to become too angry with people who are supposed to be on your side. Plus, it’s not the nurse’s fault.

I take a deep breath and say, “I have an oncology appointment scheduled for tomorrow morning at 9:10. You cannot expect me to walk into that appointment without knowing my results.”

“Oh, I know. You’re absolutely right,” the nurse says. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Immediately, I feel calmer and confident she will come through with some information. Nurses like her exude confidence. Nurses like her understand.

I return to the sofa, but am unable to sit. I begin to pace around the room.

Half an hour later, my cell phone rings. I am afraid to answer it, and for an instant I think about pretending I am not available. If I don’t answer it, I cannot receive bad news today.

I take a deep breath, grab my pen and paper and decide to push the accept call button. I might as well get it over with. After identifying himself and making sure he is speaking with the right person, this unknown-to-me doctor delivers the words I somehow knew were coming, but am still unprepared to hear.

“Well, there is a cancer there, your biopsy tested positive,” he tells me.

His voice is too calm, too detached and too familiar with giving such news. I wonder why he calls it “a” cancer, not just cancer, like it really matters.

“What else can you tell me?” I ask while thinking my question sounds completely ludicrous. At this moment, what else matters?

“Well, that’s all this report tells us really.”

“I don’t believe that,” I snap. “There has to be more.”

He annoys me. I know he is doing me a favor, delivering this news to a patient who isn’t even his.

“There must be something more you can tell me,” I plead.

For some reason I don’t trust him and feel as if he’s not telling me everything. I have no idea what those things might be.

“The only other thing,” he concedes, “is that it says here you are grade one.”

“Well, that’s at least a bit of good news,” I say.

Unbelievably, he says, “Not really, it’s the least important piece of information when we stage cancer. Tumor size and number of lymph nodes involved are far more important pieces to the puzzle than grade.”

My displeasure with this guy grows, even though I know he’s right. Perhaps I am being unfair and judgmental, but I want to scream at him, what is your problem?

Instead I keep pressing him for something further, I’m not sure what.

After I have squeezed all the information I will get out of him, I apologize for putting him on the spot and for being so short. However, I don’t really believe he deserves an apology, and I wonder if he knows I am insincere.

I begin to tremble slightly. Our conversation is concluding and my voice, which thus far I have been able to keep steady, begins to waver.

“Are you okay?” he asks, hearing me start to cry.

No you asshole; you just told me I have cancer!

Those are the words I want to lash out with, but of course that is impossible.

He seems to suddenly realize his last remark sounded insensitive because his voice immediately softens.

“I know you’ve just been told you have cancer, and it’s understandable for you to be upset,” he says.

His voice is suddenly filled with concern. His compassion comes too late. I’m done with him.

We say our goodbyes and hang up. He probably goes home to have a nice quiet dinner with his wife and kids thinking no more about cancer today.

I, on the other hand, start sobbing as I absorb the reality of my new life, for it feels my old life is over. I have cancer and am forever changed. I feel alone, angry, terrified, cheated, guilty, jinxed, unfairly treated and just plain miserable. I hear myself weeping and feel my body rocking back and forth, but it seems as if I am observing someone else’s life, a person I do not recognize.

I am alone, but not totally. Elsie and Sophie sit next to me and wonder what is wrong with me. Sophie puts her front paws up on the sofa and tries to lick my face. Elsie sits as close to me as she can get, wiggling her body as she tries to nudge Sophie out of the way. They both somehow sense the seriousness of the situation.

My dogs are the only ones with me to witness first hand my ugliest moments.

They are familiar with this role. They are seasoned witnesses, my secret keepers, consoling me only months earlier when I grieved for mother who died from, of all things, breast cancer.

Will I die from it too?

Perhaps being alone with my dogs is for the best. They will never reveal the secrets they witness on a late afternoon in spring.

Read part 2 next.

How did you get news of your diagnosis?

Have you ever wanted to lash out at a doctor for any reason?

Who helps you when you receive bad news?

Read more in my memoir, Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person:  A memoir about cancer as I know it

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You Have "A" Cancer, Part One #cancer #breastcancer #cancerdiagnosis #womenshealth #dogs

My eyewitnesses and secret keepers

My eyewitnesses and secret keepers

Linda Boberg

Tuesday 30th of April 2019

The nurse called to say that the Doctor wanted to meet with me immediately (it was late afternoon). I'd already had a biopsy following a bad mammogram and ultrasound, so I was thinking it would not be good. I called my husband and said, "I have breast cancer; I know it." He wouldn't believe it. The doctor was actually kind, said that I had cancer, that she was leaving for vacation that night and wanted me to get started in finding an oncologist. (I was at first confused because I thought she was an oncologist, but she is a surgical oncologist.) She gave me a list of doctors, and circled those she thought would be best. I remember feeling numb. I had no idea how much life would change for me.


Wednesday 21st of November 2018

My primary care doctor sent me to the ER for a ct scan. He thought i had diverticulitis. The ER doctor came in after my scan and simply said, “You don’t have diverticulitis. You have cancer and it’s metastatic.” Then he left. I guess there is no good way to deliver that news, but; really?


Friday 30th of November 2018

Janet, Your experience sounds sorta similar to mine. I went to the ER thinking I was having a heart attack. Nope. Cancer. You're right, of course. There's no good way to deliver such news, but gosh, the way your diagnosis was communicated to you was pretty darn bad. Thank you for sharing.


Saturday 29th of April 2017

I live in a small town. I felt a lump. Had mammogram, then ultrasound immediately after. Local general surgeon called to say I should have a lumpectomy as soon as possible - skipping the biopsy. Within a week I had the lumpectomy. A few days later I went to the hospital to have the incision checked and dressing changed. The doctor (surgeon) told me the fax had just come in and I had IDC, grade three, and it reached the margins so I needed a mastectomy. Normally the mastectomy would be done at a larger hospital a few hours away, but the surgeons were on holidays. It would be a three week wait for the mastectomy, or I could have the general surgeon in my hospital do it, but I would not be able to have a sentinel node biopsy. That's what I did. No one explained that I should see an oncologist. My GP's secretary hadn't bothered to make an appointment. At no time did I hear from my GP. It was awful. Lucky I ran into my surgeon by chance, and he called the secretary and had a bit of a fit - I heard him saying "You know this is your job!". One last note, A few years before I had seen the GP because I felt awful, and also felt changes in my breast. She told me breast cancer never happens in the lower part of the breast. I was under 50, and usually found doctor visits a humiliating exercise, so despite feeling thickening for a few years, I never went back. I figured she would just repeat that it couldn't be cancer because breast cancer doesn't occur in the lower part of the breast. Too bad I didn't do my own research and get another mammogram.

Elizabeth J.

Sunday 1st of May 2016

My GP called me with the results of my biopsy during my planning time at school. Apparently we had a whole conversation giving details about the cancer and discussing where she would refer me for treatment that I still don't remember. We had a repeat of that part of the conversation a couple of days later after I had absorbed the "You have cancer" statement. I couldn't handle being alone in my classroom after that call, so I went down to the school office and my principal (who knew about the biopsy) ushered me into her office and handed me a box of tissues. After we had talked a while, she decided I was in no shape to teach the rest of the day and sent me home.


Monday 2nd of May 2016

Elizabeth, Gosh, that must have been so hard to get the call while at school. As a former teacher, I can imagine myself in the same predicament. I'm glad your principal knew and treated you so kindly. So many memories...and yes, some things we can't remember too. Thank you for sharing.


Friday 29th of April 2016

I went to the same breast center at the local hospital I'd been to for years for my annual mammogram. An ultrasound biopsy was needed, which I had had before. The room got quiet. I got up to leave and the radiologist said, "good luck." Next thing I knew, I was being handed a pink bag with a pink pencil with a pink ribbon on it, some Kleenex and a piece of candy. Are you kidding me??? I took joy at the follow-up appointment when the cheerful nurse manager explained what she knew about my cancer and mentioned being treated at the hospital there. I said, "No! I am going to drive through horrendous Seattle traffic and go to a world-renowned cancer center rather than this place that can't even get telling their patients they have BC right." Good decision.


Monday 2nd of May 2016

Jeannie, Good for you for going to a center you felt better about. No one handed me a pink bag, with a pink pencil, with a pink ribbon on it and a piece of candy. Thank God! (As for kleenex, I was handed some tissues). I have never heard of that being done. Yikes. Was the candy pink too? Geez...Good decision, no kidding.

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