I had a tumor in my left breast. I found it in the shower while getting ready for work. I was 3,000 miles away from my home, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the summer. My best friend, Sally, and I were the very first guests in her aunt and uncle’s newly built guest house. It was so newly built that it wasn’t fully completed until we had already been in Santa Fe for three weeks.
Six days a week I woke up with the sun, and was out of the house by 7:30. The summer is usually a restful time for me, but not that year. Waking up so early in the morning was slowly killing me. I worked at a florist in downtown Santa Fe called the Flower Market, and I loved it. Every time I would walk in the door, the smell of a hundred different flowers smacked me in the face, and I was suddenly awake and energized. The people I worked with were great, and they made me laugh. I was considered the white girl or gringa because everyone else that worked there was either of Spanish or Mexican decent. Of all the flowers I worked with, my favorite was Volkenfrieden. It is a member of the delphinium family, and literally means, “peaceful people” in German. I had to call the Santa Fe library to find out the meaning. I think I got a loose translation, but it became a selling point I used.
The color brown is the only real color that exists in New Mexico. The plants and earth are all varying shades of brown, depending on what stage of death they are in. Grass does not exist outside. The only place grass is grown is inside houses in fancy Indian-made pottery. It is cut to be perfectly flat on top, and is there only for decoration. The houses are not painted pretty colors, they are made of adobe, which is, of course, a pale shade of brown. The only thing around me that was colorful are the flowers in my store, and the shirt I had to wear while working. It was a heavy cotton, blue collared shirt. I had to wear it every day for three months, and I still hate its ugliness. It somehow managed to drain all the prettiness out of my face.
I got the name of a doctor to go to from Sally’s aunt Robin. I was silently counting to myself to get up enough courage to ask her a simple question, “Okay, I’ll ask her in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” Days later, I sat in the truck that Sally’s aunt and uncle were letting us borrow and waited two hours to be seen by a doctor. The truck was massive, it was like driving an apartment. It had a three foot long stick shift, and I am a much better driver than Sally. By the end of the summer, Sally had put several foot long scratches in the passenger side after scraping against a wall. She also ran a neighbor off the rode, which resulted in a horrible voice mail being left on her uncle’s phone. Before the summer was over, I had perfected backing up into parking spaces, and had even managed to parallel park it.
While waiting in the truck, I obsessively watched my watch; I was an hour and a half late for work, and I hadn’t been seen by the doctor yet. Dr. Werenko was a hippy, and I fell in love with her instantly. She wore a deep plum colored Bohemian skirt and long dangly earrings. If I hadn’t been sitting in her office, I would have thought she was a holistic witch doctor, and not a general practitioner. After my exam, I was instructed that I would be set up with not only an appointment for an ultra sound, but also to see a surgeon.
“Dr. Werenko, we don’t refer patients to surgeons unless the ultra sound comes back positive,” the receptionist challenged.
“You can tell them that the physical exam came back positive.” The way this sentence was spoken, it was as if “she has cancer” was its underlying meaning. The receptionist was on hold with one of my future doctors, and kept muttering, “But she’s only twenty years old.” I was sitting on the other side of the wall next to her desk, where she couldn’t see me. I wanted to shout, “I can hear you!!!” Instead, I just sat there and listened.
I had my ultra sound at the Santa Fe Cancer Institute. Telling people I needed an ultra sound was incredibly embarrassing; I had never heard of anyone who wasn’t pregnant needing one. I drove up to the building and the lettering on the side of the building was the biggest I had ever seen. Santa Fe Cancer Institute. I drove up and saw it and thought, you’ve got to be kidding. Everyone around me was telling me I would be fine, but here I was having an appointment in a building where the word, ‘cancer’ could be seen for miles down the road. I was alone, not only for this appointment, but for everything I was experiencing. My mother and sister were in Massachusetts, and Sally and I were annoying each other. I had recently come home to find my bath towel folded neatly on the floor of our bedroom loft. I asked Sally what it was doing there, and she replied that she had no idea what I was talking about.
“Well, it looks like you’ve been exercising on it.”
“Oh. Yeah. I was,” she replied.
Tears welled up in my eyes; I wanted to go home.
Everyone at the Cancer Institute was really nice. When I explained that I was alone in New Mexico, they all treated me as if I was their own daughter. The ultra sound technician was concerned with what she saw and called the male doctor in. Total number of strangers having seen and felt my breasts so far, three. I was given pictures of my tumor instantly; 25 black and white pictures of my breast tissue to take home and show my friends.
The third doctor I saw was my own doctor in Massachusetts a month later. She wanted me to see a surgeon to discuss the possibility of having my lump removed. Surgery meant a scar, and I had just lost enough weight that I looked okay in a bikini. Working all summer on my feet at the Flower Market, and lifting tubs of water constantly had done wonders for my figure. My mother assured me we would find the best surgeon, no matter the cost, but she didn’t have thoughts of bikinis in her mind.
After the consultation with the surgeon, she handed me a piece of paper. I signed away part of my breast, and agreed to surgery. I had to be at Leominster Hospital at 6:30 in the morning. I got my own bed, with nice white sheets and warm blankets, and cute little grey hospital socks with grips on the bottom. My feet are always cold, so I was especially thankful for the socks. My mom stayed by my side and tried to entertain me so I wouldn’t be nervous. We looked over my medical chart together, and shared concerned looks when the fire alarm lights started to flash. A passing nurse told us if it was a real fire, the alarm would be sounding. Every single nurse and doctor that talked to me had to ask me the same question, “what procedure are you having done?” Every time I said, “I’m having a lumpectomy on my left breast,” it got harder and harder. I had never had an IV before, and when they put it in my hand, I cried and cried. My mom held my other hand, and stroked my hair. “It hurts,” I stammered through tears while squirming, trying to move away from the pain. I tried not to look at my mother because I knew it would just make me cry harder.
On Saturdays, a woman named Amy worked at the Flower Market. She was a young 40, and went to workout with her personal trainer on her lunch breaks. She never wore the ugly blue cotton shirt. Instead, she would match her pink and yellow t-shirts with giant fake Avon rings. She also had fake breasts, and her t-shirts were so low cut that no one, including myself, could help staring at her bulging cleavage. She had let me feel them one day at work, and even promised to let me and some of the other girls at work see them sometime. I, unfortunately, left Santa Fe before that day arrived.
The nurses in the recovery room were laughing, and it pulled me out of my drugged induced stupor. I was too groggy to eaves drop, so I just tilted my head to the side to continue sleeping. One of the nurses had spotted me, and high-tailed it to my bed. I was suppose to be waking up, not falling back asleep.
“Well, well, look who’s awake! Do you remember being wheeled out of surgery?”
“Well, you were quite talkative!”
“What was I saying?”
“Well, you asked the doctors if they had a chance to perk up your breasts while they were in there.”
“Yeah, we all got a good laugh out of such a young girl wanting her breasts perked up!”
I had no memory of saying this, but thought of Amy instantly. My surgeon came over and told me that my lump was a lot larger than they had expected; it was the size of a golf ball. The day after my surgery, my friend Nathan asked me, “So are your breasts going to be different sizes now?”
When the results came back, it revealed that I had three lumps instead of the one I had originally felt. They were 4×3x2 cm, 3×2x2 cm and 1×1x.8 cm in size. My tumors were all benign, and my breasts appear to be the same size. My scar is a few shades lighter than my normal skin color, and is an inch and a half long, but it is invisible when I wear a bathing suit.