These are the first initials of dear friends who are currently fighting breast cancer:
G., who will get her portacath Tuesday to begin chemo. G. is taking care of her aging mother who can no longer get out of her wheelchair unassisted.
S., whose early treatment plan of lumpectomy plus radiation has been altered to include mastectomy plus 12 weeks of chemo, the hair-loss variety of chemo. S. is the mother of three teenagers.
R., who had beaten her breast cancer several years ago but is back in treatment after a recurrence. R. is funny and energetic and keeps the trains running on time.
And Mary Ann. I'm using Mary Ann's full name--I'm pretty sure she won't mind. Mary Ann was my roommate when I was in the Peace Corps, and she's one tough cookie. The kind of tough cookie who rides a horse over mountain roads in pouring rain to meet with her nutrition group when we were in Costa Rica. The kind of tough cookie who took over when our house was robbed, cleaned up the mess, sedated me (yeah, I thought it was an aspirin), and sat next to the broken window all night just waiting for the thieves to come back. For the record, I don't condone giving people sleeping pills so they'll calm down after their house is robbed even if those people are shrieking about their lost cassette deck, but hey, I kind of can't blame her.
I describe Mary Ann in full because she was the one who let me know a month ago that she's been diagnosed with breast cancer, Stage 4, and is halfway through chemo.
"I'm tough, and I'm going to beat this," she told me then, "but would you pray for me? And get a mammogram."
I got that mammogram. And I flunked.
The form letter from the hospital clearly was designed to not induce panic but to make it clear that its recipients needed to act immediately. "Irregularities in your mammogram make it necessary for you to come back for more testing. Many of these irregularities turn out to be benign."
To my surprise, my first reaction to the news was not panic but irritation. There is no history of breast cancer in my family. I have been compulsively punctual about getting my annual mammograms--until two years ago, when some government agency announced it was okay to go two years between testing, and the two years stretched into three. But still...my gynecologist had checked me every year (while chiding me that I should ignore the government and be tested every year).
I had always been fine so I wasn't panicked, I was irritated. I have too much going on to have breast cancer. In the next few weeks I had calendared a three-day trip to Minneapolis for a national denominational meeting, Small College's Homecoming, trustee meeting, the start-up of two different women's groups after summer hiatus, and being at the piano for a friend at her first gig as a lounge singer.
"Dang!" I thought as I read the lines. "I don't have time for this."
But then reality set in. I knew that no person is immune to breast cancer, no woman and no man. I had seen my boss and mentor, Susan, die of breast cancer at age 42. Strong women? She was a national age-group racketball champion. She was strong and awesome and she died.
So the next morning I called to schedule the recommended follow-up mammogram and diagnostic ultrasound. The earliest I could get in was 10 days later. Ten days. That's nothing in the eyes of eternity, but 10 days of wondering what the first mammogram had found. What was it? Was it a shadow, or a lump? Right breast or left? Was it bigger or smaller than the lump that had led to a biopsy after my very first mammogram 20 years ago that turned out to be the aftermath of breastfeeding four babies?
I didn't tell many people, not even tell the Boys, not at this stage. But Husband, of course. My two sisters. Another dear friend from Bible study who has had breast cancer and is officially deemed cured. My work buddy to whom I Skype prayer requests before I go into tough meetings. G. And Mary Ann.
I wanted people on my team who could pray for me, but pray in a way that harmonizes with my own prayers. A few weeks ago we worshiped in a different church and the pastor clarified this so perfectly that it had been ringing through my mind every day, every hour:
The week was long and I was cranky. On Thursday I had no patience for anyone. "You think you have problems because your brochure isn't printed yet? I may have CANCER." It was like being newly pregnant, before you tell anyone. "You think your life is wonderful? I am PREGNANT!" Yes, just like that, except on Opposite Day."We know that prayer works," he said. "We know it because we have experienced prayer working, and we know it works because the Bible tells us that 'the prayer of a righteous person availeth much.' But we also know that God is not a vending machine. You don't put in your dollar's-worth of prayer and out pops what YOU want to happen. No, prayer is a matter of aligning ourselves with the will of God, of reflecting His will back to Him."
Husband followed my lead in talking about What Was Happening. We didn't verbalize what ifs. We didn't jump ahead of the following step into the unknown. But on Friday before I left for the hospital he let slip that he had researched the subject on WebMD. I had told him that the sonogram would only be done if something untoward was found on the next mammogram. "No, I think a sonogram is standard in this case," he told me. To my own amazement, I had not Googled "abnormal mammogram." This is unlike me; I am normally into the tenth screen deep before I make a follow-up appointment.
Husband and sisters and friends offered to stay with me during the mammogram, but I told them no. I didn't want to be responsible for anyone's emotions but my own, and from long experience as a middle child I knew I would worry about how each of them was holding up.
As I sat in the waiting room, I pecked out lines into my iPad's Notes program.
"I have so many people praying for me. I feel it. I laughed as I walked out of the door to come here. They're praying for God's will to be done.And what is God's will? That I do not fear. That I am kind to those I encounter. That I seek him. That I glorify him. All of these I know are indisputably His will because He repeated those things over and over in the Bible. That I have perfect, perky boobs? If the past 60 years is any indication, not so much."Since this post is already book-length and I'm sure any of the men in my life are squicked out by all this talk of my breasts, I'll fast-forward over the ensuing hour.
I called Husband from the ultrasound room, my shirt halfway back over my head. I broke the no-cell-phones rule because I couldn't wait a moment longer to hear his voice.
"I'm fine. They didn't find anything wrong. They said to come back in a year for a well woman check." His sigh was so deep it sounded like a sob. "Are you breathing?" he asked me with a laugh, "because I just started again."
Then I left the hospital grinning so widely that my cheeks hurt. I stepped into the street in a daze before noticed a car was coming half a block away, and this made me laugh out loud. Wouldn't that be ironic? If I were hit by a car just as I felt so invincible?
I texted my other prayer warriors, and the joy and relief spilled out of the iPhone screen. Much Older Sister, when she heard that the abnormality on the first mammogram may have been a digitally-captured wrinkle, reminded me of our Great Aunt Gladys, who claimed that in her later years her once-sexy bras were just "a handy way to roll 'em up and tuck 'em in." (Great Aunt Gladys was a character.)
This morning I woke up early, something that never happens on the rare unscheduled Saturday. I couldn't get back to sleep, thinking about the days between when Mary Ann urged me to get a mammogram and yesterday. I'll get up and go about my day without having to temper my joy about the Royals play-offs (woo-hoooooo!) with the knowledge that "I might have CANCER."
G., S., and R. do not have that luxury. Nor does Mary Ann. They are all strong women and tough cookies, and they plan to be with us for many, many more years. Please, in their honor, make sure your mammograms are current. I will be praying for God's will in their lives, His good and perfect will that is peace and kindness and grace during suffering.
Because my initials are not among them, but until Friday morning they could have been.