The Diagnosis: Phil
Cindy came into my classroom and I instantly knew something was terribly wrong.
On April 20th – 2:00 a.m. to be accurate and while I was asleep – Cindy could not fall asleep. Her mind was abuzz with terrific ideas about the home we hoped to build on the property we were about to purchase. As she lay awake, she performed a self-breast exam during which she felt something unusual. We, or I, awoke the next morning and Cindy asked me to check the unusual area she had surveyed just hours before. Yes, something felt unusual and yes, she should go have it looked at by the doctor.
We never considered how quickly our lives would change.
When she appeared at my classroom door, I could tell she had been crying. A good friend – a colleague – took my class knowing something was up. We walked quickly to a private room, closed the door, and cried.
Three weeks before, we anticipated closing on property in Whitingham, Vermont, and were planning to build a home; now we had more important things to consider, manage, nurture.
What is it about a cancer diagnosis that changes people? For me, who had been joyfully in love with my best friend, I now saw that joy be replaced by fear and dread. I’ve always thought of myself as resourceful, and to curb the feelings of fear and dread, I threw myself into caring for my wife and always being there for her.
I felt guilty for not being with Cindy when she was told of her diagnosis.
The Diagnosis: Cindy
I was alone. Not because my husband was too busy to go with me to the appointment or because I didn’t have enough support people in my life, but because I was 29 and the doctors were so sure the lump I’d found in my now-no-longer left breast was just a cyst. I was in the shape of my life, ate well, exercised, and led a balanced life. If the lump were to be cancer, I’d feel “off” somehow, I figured.
Doing a mammogram on my flat chest wasn’t easy. It seemed to hurt more the second time, third time, and fourth time they took pictures. An hour later when I went in for my ultrasound, I began to lose my confidence that it was just a cyst. “What does cancer look like?” I asked the technician.
“Well, the mass usually shows up black with spiky edges. Cysts are generally clear and round.”
As she moved the wand over my breast, the black jagged figure on the screen held my gaze. The technician didn’t speak, she just kept moving the wand and clicking the mouse. Then she moved to a lymph node in my armpit, which also appeared dark. “That’s not good,” I finally said.
“No,” the technician whispered. She left the room and returned with a radiologist. Everyone says you’re not supposed to get a diagnosis without a biopsy, but on the afternoon of May 8, 2002, the radiologist told me it looked like I had breast cancer. The technician hugged me, I began to cry, she handed me a box of tissues. I was in total disbelief.
The 30-minute ride home is a blur. I screamed, cried – wailed is more like it. “What the HELL???” I banged on the steering wheel. “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”
I drove back to work, a boarding school in rural New Hampshire where my husband worked too. I sat in the car in the parking lot for almost five minutes trying to get myself together. I walked into the building where Phil was teaching and paused in the doorway. It was one of the worst moments of the whole cancer journey – knowing I had this terrible secret that Phil didn’t know yet, knowing that when I spoke the three words “I have cancer” to him, it would change our lives forever.
Tears well in my eyes now as I think of that moment: his smile when he saw me appear at the classroom door, his sobbing when I spoke the three words in a nearby office, our long embrace that marked the beginning of a new life for us.