Stephanie was a little bitty thing.
Even nine months pregnant she had coat hanger arms and matchstick legs and I wondered why her metabolism was in such a big hurry.
She birthed her baby boy with no complication, but then she discovered something bothersome and her doctor told her it was a blocked milk duct. It made perfect sense so she accepted it as gospel without question.
It was what she wanted to hear, after all.
If I was her, in my early 20s, I would have chosen to believe it, too.
By the time she discovered it was something more, it was too late. Her friends tried to pray her whole and the doctors tried to kill that cancer, but that little bitty thing just shriveled even smaller until she grew tiny enough to slip through Death’s door.
Her baby boy is close to 20 now.
In May I had my annual mammagram, a few days before my husband was returning home from work in Germany, and a few weeks before we were all to return there for the summer. Since Mama died when she was 38 from breast cancer, her mama died in her early 20s from the same, and my sister is a 15-year survivor, I don’t miss opportunity for this singular form of humiliation, knowing that a good breast smashing is for my own good.
What I didn’t expect was the follow-up phone call early the next morning.
Why would I? They’ve never called before.
“Mrs. Dance, we’re going to need you to come back in….”
The blood drained from my brain into the pit of my stomach splashing bile to the back of my tongue.
Nevermind that my tech was upbeat and minimized what she saw; they still needed me to come in to confirm their suspicions: cysts in my left breast.
I’ve known my entire life I live in cancer’s shadow.
I’ve tried to be realistic about my odds for getting it, to imagine how I’d respond if I ever received that News. Early detection would be my Savior, right?
My eyes filled with water and I did my best to steady my voice to make an appointment for the follow-up sonogram. I was an Imposter until I hung up the phone.
The floodgates flung open. I was so damn mad at myself because I couldn’t control the tears and this wasn’t even a diagnosis! I had imagined my response would be different if I ever got that stupid News, but here I was a crybaby over an imaginary diagnosis.
The Imposter returned when I talked to my sister and husband later that day and I wondered if they could sense my detachment. I wasn’t going to tell either until after my appointment–Tad was 5,000 miles away and my sister two hours, and they would be a tangle of worry and helplessness.
Despite my puddly reaction, there wasn’t a thing to worry about.
* * * * *
Relief came within seconds of my second appointment; the sonogram confirmed fluid-filled cysts; no solid mass or tumors or any of those ugly words.
Exactly what my tech had predicted. Exactly what I wanted to hear.
Lurking in Memory’s 20-year-old shadow, Stephanie’s face came to mind. I swept it back into the corner thinking My situation isn’t anything like hers was….
A fool’s delusion.
And then I called my sister who promptly went ballistic.
Among a torrent of suggestions, she urged me to see my gynocologist and to get a second opinion. She’s my older sister by all of 16 months and she’s been bossing me as long as I can remember. I suppose she decided it was her job after Mama died. She’s as strong as steel and sharing her opinion is one of her superpowers.
Our phone call wasn’t sufficient. A flurry of texts with scary words came next–
And then the hammer–
“Our family members are not your average case study. You are going to have to be proactive in the choices you make and you will have to take charge with your doctor.”
Gosh, she overreacts. But then I was able to reach Tad, whom I thought would be satisfied with the post-sonogram report.
I was wrong.
Though he didn’t know the Scary Words my sister had used, his sense of urgency was the same. He insisted I make an appointment with my gynecologist for us both to attend after he returned home the next week.
We asked the doctor about all those Scary Words and although he remembers (because he’s looking at my file), I remind him about my family history.
I’m one of the lucky ones. My initial diagnosis stands up. A small cluster of cysts we’ll watch forever or when they dissipate, whichever comes first.
Another love in my life has been sick off and on for a while now, but it’s hard to say just when all the little things started. She’s been back and forth to her small town doctor, and he’s been faithful to prescribe this and that for her symptoms.
Only recently it occurred to me that HE WAS TREATING HER SYMPTOMS–never has he diagnosed the issue causing the symptoms. I haven’t been privvy to doctor/patient conversation and I know I’ve missed more than I’ve heard, but it dawned on me that she desperately needed to see someone else, because her preferred provider was missing something–
She hasn’t been 100% well in over a year.
I’m no doctor and I had no idea what he was missing, but that disquiet in my spirit was Sense telling me Something important. So I railed and I ranted and roared like a lion, and at the risk of sounding like a complete jerk, I demanded that she make an appointment with SOMEONE ELSE. Anyone else.
Before she made a new appointment (who knows if she would have?) the Good Lord saw in His Divine Providence to smyte her with somethin’ dreadful, and her body betrayed her. It literally told on her!
In a miraculous chain of events, she got sick enough to warrant a trip to the ER. The causative issue was revealed, she was properly treated, and just like that she’s on the road to good health.
Now, I don’t know how my way of thinkin’ squares with theology, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me otherwise; that God didn’t allow her to get Just Sick Enough to HAVE to go to the ER, so that someone else could look at her with new eyes and figure out what was wrong.
The what that was wrong…that Sense that was stirred up in my spirit….had her body not rebelled against her (stubborness? loyalty to her doctor? naivete?) would have killed her in a matter of days had it not been addressed.
So I was watching Downton Abbey Sunday night, awaiting the birth of sweet Sybil’s baby along with all the Granthams and the staff and the rest of the Downtonrazzi.
It was painful, wasn’t it? All of it.
Not just Sybil’s labor agony; any woman who’s given birth felt the pangs with her.
It was the ridiculous
[and I beg your forgiveness in advance for employing so crude a phrase to describe what comes next, but I can’t think of another thing that more aptly describes Sir Philip’s and Dr. Clarkson’s behavior]
pissing contest between the two doctors. The arrogant, petulant Sir Philip versus the Village doctor Clarkson. Ignorning Lady Grantham’s best advice of them all – defering to Dr. Clarkson’s opinion who had known and treated Sybil since birth; he was certainly in a position to know what was best for his patient.
But the misguided Earl of Grantham, Sybil’s father, only heard what he wanted to hear. He valued the pedigree of Sir Philip over the commonness of Dr. Clarkson; well, that and he couldn’t forgive the perceived failures of Dr. Clarkson with regard to Matthew’s temporary paralysis and Lavinia’s flu-related death.
Hearing what he wanted to hear informed Robert’s belief, and he bullied Sybil’s husband, Tom, and the rest of the family into getting his way.
Which, unfortunately, ended in Sybil’s unnessary death due to eclampsia.
We all watched and wept, didn’t we? It was avoidable if only….
If only Robert et all had not acted on what they wanted to hear.
Sunday night’s episode of Downton Abbey stirred memories past and present, three of which I’ve shared here.
Can we let it serve as cautionary tale? If…when…you or a loved one receive a diagnosis you want to hear under a cloud of “What ifs”; would you please seek a second opinion to confirm that diagnosis?
But how can I cast stones at Robert? We have the benefit of hindsight in Sybil’s (imaginary) circumstance, but haven’t we all acted at some point in our lives upon what we wanted to hear rather than what we needed to hear?
Consider me a big sister who’s assuming the right to boss you around; or compel YOU to boss someone else who needs bossing.
Because it might just save a life one day.