A Trip to the ER, aka, the Day the Shit Hit the Fan

Six years ago, I decided to get my ass to the ER due to what I thought were heart attack symptoms. I was visiting my dad at the time trying to help him out with some spring cleaning. My dad lives about three hours from my house, so when I think back on it, it was a pretty dumb decision I made that day to hop in my car, drive home (alone) and head to the ER.

What if it had been a heart attack, for crying out loud? 

I figured it was a slow-onset-of-symptoms sort of heart attack. That’s how I rationalized things at the time anyway.

When I stood in front of the receptionist later that day to check myself in at the ER, I never in my wildest dreams considered I might have cancer.

Who would, right?

Regardless, that was the day the shit hit fan.

One thing led to another (you can read the details in my memoir if you want) as the ER doctor ruled out a heart attack.

Then cancer got ‘ruled in’, or more accurately, the possibility of cancer.

Call it intuition or whatever you want, at that point, I think I already knew it was more than a possibility.

After having a CT scan in an almost unbearably cold room, that ER doctor re-entered (for the umpteenth time) the exam room I was anxiously waiting in with a somber expression on his face, and right then and there, I knew it was serious. His demeanor said it all.

“We found a mass (why do they call it that?) in your left breast,” he informed me. “It’s about an inch in diameter.”

I remember thinking, gosh, you don’t wanna waste any time do you?

He said a whole bunch of other things, but I’m not sure what they were. The only words that stuck (and still do) were mass, breast and inch.

Oh and these words, we need to get you in for a diagnostic mammogram right away.

Yeah, I remember those words too and the urgency with which they were said.

I couldn’t help wondering if maybe a heart attack might have been better.

I don’t mean to minimize heart attacks; that’s just the thought that popped into my head at the time.


That was the day the shit hit the fan.

When did the shit first hit the fan for you?

Did you “know” you had cancer before you “knew” for sure?

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A trip to the ER, aka, the day the shit hit the fan #cancer #cancerdiagnosis #breastcancer #cancersucks

33 thoughts to “A Trip to the ER, aka, the Day the Shit Hit the Fan”

  1. Hi Nancy,

    Your memoir covers this so well. Prior to reading your excellent memoir, I had no idea that this was how your cancer was discovered. It’s really a good thing you went to the ER. And, yes, why do we always have to be ushered into incredibly cold rooms?

    I found my cancer while doing a routine monthly breast exam. When I was doing the mirror part of the test, I saw a dimple on my right breast. I knew, just knew it was cancer, although I tended to be a bit of a hypochondriac. So for two weeks, I kept telling myself that I was a hypochondriac, but I cried a lot, thinking it was cancer. I finally made an appointment with my gynecologist, who hadn’t detected it in a recent breast exam and had my negative mammogram results. He reassured me that it probably wasn’t cancer, but he referred me for a diagnostic mammogram, just in case.

    I left his office so happy because he said it probably wasn’t cancer, and I held on with a false sense of security. But then the diagnostic mammogram date came, and there I was in a freezing room, and the only magazine there was was one with an article on how a woman died young from breast cancer.

    Yeah, really good reading, while I was awaiting my fate.

    When the technician kept coming back for more shots of my right breast and told me the radiologist wanted to see different angles, I knew. Then the radiologist met with me and said, there was a mass in my right breast, but it could be benign. I would need a biopsy.

    And that’s where the medical shit really hit the fan. I really knew it all along.

    Great post, Nancy.

    1. Beth, It’s interesting how you seemed to know all along. Might be something to intuition after all. And gosh, how horrible to read that article while you sat there waiting. Geez… Thank you for sharing.

  2. what a shit trip to the ER 🙁

    I knew I was going to have cancer, i had blood coming out of my nipple in november 2014 and after a visit to the doctor it was dismissed as nothing to worry bout, but then at 22 weeks pregnant in May 2015 I found a lump and I was still having blood coming out of the nipple.. I just knew then that with both symptoms combined it had to be cancer and unfortunately it was!

    1. Sarah, How scary to have blood coming out of your nipple. Yikes. Seems odd a doctor would dismiss such a symptom. I’m sorry you had to deal with all that and while pregnant too. Talk about stressful. Hope you’re doing well now. And yes, it was a shit trip to the ER. Thank you for sharing.

      1. It was a scary time, I was only 28 too, I have been in remission since February (Triple negative..) just hope I get a while in remission! x

  3. October 20, 2014 at 6:00pm – that fatal call from the radiologist. In the preceding 3 weeks, I talked to my PCP about a “bump” I could no longer ignore, followed by a diagnostic mammogram, followed by a biopsy. I was taking a course in Pathophysiology at the time, and had convinced myself that it was a fibroadenoma, benign & insignificant. I will never forget the radiologist’s words: “you are so young.” At 46, after being divorced only a year from a 12 year marriage, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. If ever there was a “life is not fair” moment, this was it.

  4. Re cancer vs. heart attacks: This past November 5 marked the day when my chronological age passed my mother’s age when she died. She had suffered her first major heart attack when I was 10, her second when I was 23, and had died less than a year after that. Heart disease had been on my radar for decades, so I was really surprised when cancer came at me out of left field (and left breast).

    Even more surprising: When I got my images going as far back as I could get them, I could see that my 1.8 cm. tumor had been clearly visible for years. If I look carefully enough, I can detect it going back a decade before it was finally flagged. I learned that if a tumor shows no changes for three years it is labeled as “benign,” even if it is actually malignant, and that the doctor who flagged my 2014 mammogram had gone beyond “standard of care.” Now I always ask for my images, so that I have my own records that I can view for myself.

    I was very lucky in that my tumor had been very slow-growing. (I was actually more upset when I saw my old “benign” mammo images.) Between follow-up diagnostic mammo and biopsy, I prepared myself as best I could for a cancer diagnosis, getting as much info as I could in advance (and listening obsessively to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”). I was most concerned with how I would be impacted as a caregiver. When I finally got my diagnosis almost a month after my screening mammogram, I felt a mixture of “lock and load,” “git ‘er done,” and out-of-body experience. The more info I could gather and the more action I could take, the less afraid I felt.

    1. Elissa, I am sorry about your mother. What a scary thing to worry about heart disease all that time and then wham, cancer strikes instead. And gosh, it’s remarkable that your tumor had been visible for years. I don’t blame you for always asking for your images now. Putting yourself in information-gathering mode after your diagnosis, I totally get that. Thank you for sharing.

  5. In April 2013 I found my own lump doing a breast self exam. It did not show up on a mammogram the next day but did show on the ultrasound. A week later I had the biopsy. My life turned upside down and the s**t hit the fan the next day. I worked for the hospital where my tests were done and after three excruciating hours of waiting to hear I looked my results up in the computer knowing I could be fired for doing so but desperation over-ruled common sense that day. There it was..the results..I stared at the computer that said “newly diagnosed invasive lobular carcinoma, left breast”. I quickly shut down the computer and went outside shaking like a leaf. Half an hour later I received the radiology phone call to tell me what I already knew. And then I left work without telling anyone.

    1. Mary Ellen, Interesting that you found your own lump and that it did not show up on a mammogram the next day. I could hardly locate mine even after it was discovered on the scan as it was pretty deep and unnoticeable to me. It must have been so stressful for you to wait and also to feel that added pressure or worry about possibly being fired for peeking at your results. No wonder you went outside shaking like a leaf. And then you got the call… Such an awful experience for you all the way around. Thank you for sharing about it though.

  6. I meant to say invasive lobular carcinoma.
    Even three years later I shake remembering that awful day.

  7. What a way to find out, Nancy. Wow. For me, I thought I was the last person to get breast cancer because I didn’t have any of the factors. It’s been 5 months since my diagnosis, and I’m not completely sure I believe it yet. The mastectomy/placement of the expander box are behind me. The removal of the box and the insertion of the implant is still ahead (next month). Most of my focus has been on the physical pain. I suspect the emotional pain (hitting the fan) will last a lot longer…

    1. Kristy, It was a shocker, but it’s not like there’s a good way to find out, right? Your diagnosis is still very recent, so you are probably still processing much of what’s happening. So no wonder you don’t completely believe it yet. Sometimes I still don’t! You are very right about the emotional pain possibly kicking in later and lasting a lot longer. We are all different in how we handle all of it of course. Hope all goes well next month and beyond. Be patient with yourself. And kind. Good luck.

  8. Nancy, I always had this bad feeling I would get cancer at a young age but never thought it would be bc. I always insisted to my doctors they check everything even when there was no reason to check. This is probably related to the fear I developed after seeing my grandmother go through ovarian cancer.

    You know I am fascinated with dreams. I had 3 weird ones before finding my tumor. So my superstitions pushed me to check myself. That’s when shit hit the fan for me. I found my tumor and I knew before they did. I say the first couple of months after that were the worst because I did not know much about anything. I thought I was going to die.

    I understand your statement about the “heart attack”. Often I’ve felt the same way too. I am sorry you went through all of this. But I am glad we’ve connected through the experience.

    1. Rebecca, It makes me sad to think you worried so much about getting cancer, though of course, it’s perfectly understandable after witnessing what your grandmother went through. Amazing about the three dreams you had that pushed you to check yourself. Good thing you trusted your intuition. I’m sorry you’ve been through all this crap, too, but glad we’ve connected. Thanks for sharing.

  9. A clinically normal mammogram in April 2008 was followed by a recommendation for a breast MRI, due to my strong family history (2 sisters diagnosed) and dense breast tissue. The MRI showed a suspicious area. An ultrasound a few days later was “iffy” and the radiologist said it could be cancer, but it may not be. She said I could wait six months and have another look or have a MR-guided biopsy now. There was no way I was going to wait six months and by then I felt that there was a good chance it was cancer. It was a process over several weeks, but the biopsy on May 27 confirmed cancer. I was told by my family doctor–the same one who, along with the radiologist who read my mammogram, had recommended the MRI in the first place. Thank God they did! And “shit hit the fan” is a great phrase for what happens when you get the news that you have cancer. Thanks Nancy and all who have responded. Honoring the details of our individual stories helps us all.

    1. Lisa, Good thing you had that MRI and also that you didn’t wait for those six months! I didn’t remember you had that strong family history. Have you had genetic testing then? Sorry, I can’t remember. Your diagnosis came in spring, too, then. I agree that honoring the details of our individual stories is helpful to us all. Thank you for sharing some of yours, Lisa.

        1. Lisa, I think I remember that now. There are more mutations they look for now, so I’m wondering if you plan to test for any of those…

  10. It’s amazing that as time passes, and our memory is crap due to the treatment, but one thing remains the same is our ability to recall that day as if it were only moments ago.

    It was on 9/11 (I honestly thought I couldn’t despise that day any more) and I was at home alone with my then seven year old son when I received the phone call.

    My entire world was shattered, as I have three daughters and I know that they were immediately threatened.

    1. Meeka, How awful to be home alone with your young son and on that date, too, when you got the call. I’m sorry. I understand about your concern for your children. And yes, some memories never fade. Hope you’re doing okay now. Thank you for sharing about the day the shit hit the fan for you.

    2. I got my news on Sept. 11, too! The words were “we’ve found some malignant cells.” Over the phone. I remained calm. I somehow was not surprised, although it felt like an out of body experience at the same time. I had had a “cyst” two mammograms prior, and this new finding was in the exact same place, although they insisted it was “new” tissue. It’s true there was an “all clear” mammo in between, but maybe they were just thinking like I was, it’s just that little “benign cyst” in there. And yeah, of all the things we do forget, how come we never forget that day. I play and replay every doctor visit since then. At this rate, I will never forget, now matter how much I want to! I try to use the prompt to pray for the doctor, and to forgive them for all the stupid things that have been said and done to me. It’s gonna take a miracle!

      1. Prov21wannabe, There is so much I will never forget…This is just reality. I am sorry about your diagnosis. I remember that out of body experience you mentioned, as I felt much the same. Thank you for sharing. Welcome to my blog.

  11. I was not quite myself the whole summer prior to DX. Not quite sick, but not well, either. I just kind of felt “off”. When my aunt was DX’d and then I asked for my first mammo, I did not connect the dots. Of course, that first mammo came back clear, I didn’t really give it much thought until a few weeks later when my nipple inverted. I took a morning off from work to get it checked (not dreaming it would be an issue–hey, I just got a letter from that radiologist saying there was nothing to be concerned about)–and, well, I never did get to work that day. My gyno made sure I went straight over to the breast surgeon, and suddenly I was having another mammo, an ultrasound. I was alone too. After all, I did not really think I had to be worried. What were the odds both my aunt and I would have cancer simultaneously? Her under 50, me at age 38?
    After all the testing, I thought back to how “off” I’d felt that summer. But I was under a lot of stress, extremely unhappy–I thought that slightly sick feeling was just a result of that.
    I don’t like to remember those times.

    1. CC, Interesting how you didn’t feel yourself all that summer prior to your diagnosis. And then to get the clear mammo… Good thing you went to get checked out again and that your gynecologist sent you to the breast surgeon for another mammogram and then an ultrasound. It must have been quite shocking for you, especially after that clear mammo. Don’t blame you for not wanting to remember those times, but we can’t forget either, or at least I can’t. Thank you for sharing. So important to follow your gut feelings sometimes.

  12. Sorry this is so long – I think I needed to get a little off my chest!
    My mother died of brain mets (original may have been ovarian, but breast also possible) at age 28, and my dad died of lung mets at age 54 (origin was never determined; he was diagnosed when his spine started collapsing, but they could never find the primary). So I always expected to get cancer and die young. As I got into my late 40’s I thought maybe it wouldn’t hit me after all. Then shortly after my 49th birthday and my annual mammogram, I got the call to come back for a follow-up mammogram. I wasn’t particularly worried until the nurse called me in to take more images for the third time. It was a Friday, and I sat in the waiting room for hours in between. They finally told me the radiologist saw something, probably just ‘folded breast tissue,’ but they wanted to do an ultrasound. So they did that the same day, and weren’t sure there was anything there, but wanted to do a biopsy. So I scheduled the biopsy for Monday, was a nervous wreck all weekend, and then on Monday they couldn’t find anything on the ultrasound, so told me there was nothing there and no biopsy was necessary. Then the next morning the surgeon called back and said the radiologist was insistent that a biopsy be done because he believed there was a problem, and could I come in right away. Talk about going from high to low in 24 hours! Went in, had the biopsy and was again a nervous wreck until Friday when I went back for results. I knew the surgeon’s nurse, so as soon as I got in the room I asked her how the biopsy was. She said ‘oh, it was fine.’ I was so relieved, and said, ‘good, I don’t have cancer.’ She said ‘oh no, you do have cancer.’ I’ve never quite understood that exchange.
    I was very calm, because I had never really done any research into breast cancer (was BRCA tested years previously and was negative), so I had bought into the pink hype, and said to the surgeon, this shouldn’t be a problem, right? They can do a lot against this now.’ She said yes, there have been many advances. After double mx that revealed stage 2A lobular (and then a hemorrhage a week later where I lost 25% of my blood requiring 3 transfusions, then two infections requiring removal of the right expander, a DVT from the IV antibiotics for the infection, and 3 hospitalizations for c. diff., then replacement of the expander, oophorectomy surgery, and exchange surgery), I hoped I was ok for the time being. But my hip started hurting, so I asked for an x ray. That was inconclusive, so I asked for a bone scan. I got a call from the oncologist’s office on a Friday morning last November exactly a year from the date of my diagnosis that the bone scan showed nothing. I decided to look at my online records that afternoon to see a copy of the report …. and it said ‘diagnosis of secondary metastatic lesions to bone.’ I thought I was going to have a heart attack on the spot. And of course, my oncologist’s office closes at noon on Fridays. So I called my surgeon’s office and she told me to come right away. When I got there, my blood pressure was 176/115. They kept telling me to calm down. Right, like that was going to happen. My surgeon looked at the report and said ‘why didn’t anybody tell me you had been diagnosed metastatic?’ I said ‘why didn’t anybody tell ME I had been diagnosed metastatic?’ So she called the radiologist who originally diagnosed me (he wasn’t the one who read the bone scan originally) and he looked at the bone scan. He said he had no idea where the diagnosis came from, because all the scan showed was arthritis in my back. So they told me it was a mistake. I was somewhat reassured, but still a nervous wreck all weekend. Monday morning marched into oncologist’s office waving the report, and said ‘somebody needs to explain this.’ Oncologist called that afternoon and said ‘this is going to sound really lame, but …’ It turned out a clerk had put in a diagnostic code for the bone scan that she knew would ensure that the insurance company would approve the bone scan. The code was for previous metastatic lesions. Yes, I did think it sounded really lame. My PCP thinks that was the final straw that pushed me into PTSD. She may be right.
    And my hip still hurts. That lobular is sneaky stuff – I’m not convinced it isn’t really in there chewing away ….

    1. Cathy, Gosh, that’s quite a story. Highs and lows, no kidding! I’m sorry about your parents. And I’m sorry about all you have had to endure too. Talk about stress. Thanks for sharing; hope it helped to get all that off your chest.

  13. It’s hit the fan more than a few times in my life so far. Witnessing my mother die of a chemo-induced pulmonary embolism in her 40’s after years being treated for BC was pretty horrific. Seeing her sister waste away – cancer cachexia so no hair, no flesh, no strength – through brain and bone mets (which finally broke her hip and caused her death) was also pretty shitty. Three late miscarriages for me wasn’t great, though I’m eternally grateful for the son I do have. Then there’s my own run in with BC – tiny dimple, barely noticeable lump, clear mammo but something suspicious on diagnostic ultrasound and before you know it I’m diagnosed grade 3 HER2 positive with a ” moderate” prognosis whatever that’s supposed to mean. Finding a new job during treatment and seeing first hand what really happens to people with cancer in spite of all the legislation was quite an eye opener too!

    1. Tracy, You’re right. The shit actually first hit the fan for me in 2004 when my mother was diagnosed with bc. The darn fan hasn’t really shut off since. I am very sorry about your mother, your aunt and your three miscarriages. So much heartache for you, Tracy. Hugs.

  14. I actually was having a breast reduction. I always worried about breast cancer because my mother and grandmother had it. I was very faithful with my mammograms and exams. But never once did I think I would wake up from anesthesia to find my husband and son on one side of the stretcher and the surgeon on the other side telling me they found breast cancer! It was a blessing that it was found because the type I had was difficult to diagnose on mammogram. But it was also very difficult because here I was with this breast reduction that I had been waiting years to have and not really sure if I would be able to keep those breasts because they were not able to remove the entire tumor. I needed further surgery 2 months later but thankfully a lumpectomy removed the rest of the tumor.

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