My Story Part II: Like sands through the hourglass, those are the grains of our lives

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.

– Robert W. Service

My Rock and I had just enough time to eat our sandwiches in the waiting area when we were introduced to Michele Speer, the Breast Center Nurse Navigator at Stamford Hospsital and brought to her office. The room was bedecked with pink ribbons, pink teddy bears, and all things pink. We sat on her sofa and she brought up a screen with what looked like the outline of a breast and then a bunch of little white spots forming a crescent. Each dot looked like a grain of salt. They were somewhat sporadic, but clearly there. Michelle explained that they were likely just calcifications, is where calcium salts form and build into hardened grains, and nothing. However, because they are they and the hospital wanted to rule them out, they wanted to have me come in for a biopsy.

I was told to stop taking any and all supplements I’d been taking as part of the D’Adamo Shift plan, as some herbal remedies prevent blood from clotting, and since this is an invasive procedure, it would be best to refrain. The biopsy was scheduled for the following week. And timing stunk. It was just a day or two before a day-long drive up to Maine for a mountain-bike race weekend.

Being the control freak that I am, I asked Michelle to describe the procedure in explicit detail. When she got to the part that my breast would be dropped through a hole in the table with me facing down, and I’d have absolutely no visibility to what was going on, I slammed on the brakes.

“No way, Michelle. No way. That’s not going to happen.”

“What do you mean? You don’t want to see this.”

“The hell I don’t.”

Let tell you this story so I can get back to that one. When I was 4 years old, I was at my grandmother’s house. My father was asleep on the sofa behind me, and I was making a construction paper elf out of pink and yellow paper. Since my grandmother was very “old school” European, the only scissors she had on hand were the big, steel scissors with the painted black handles. As I was cutting him out of the paper, the scissors slid and plunged into my right knee, nearly going all the way through the other side. I started to cry, which woke my dad up. He asked what was wrong, and within seconds, saw for himself, and I was whisked into the car to the hospital. The whole time, however, I was fascinated by the injury. When we got to the Emergency Room, the doctors & nurses kept laying me down on my back so that I couldn’t see what they were doing. I kept popping back up to watch. Finally, one of them said, “You don’t want to watch this.” And I said, “Yes, I do.” And I watched from start to finish, asking questions, fascinated by the procedure.

“You don’t want to see this, Rica, they are going to plunge a needle into your breast and suck out small samples.”

“Yes, I do. Let me ask you this, will I be fully conscious?”

“Yes.”

“Then I have to be able to watch.”

“But that’s impossible.”

“Then you’d better knock me out cold. Because it’s either I’m fully awake, aware, and able to watch, or I’m out cold so I can’t be aware of what’s going on.”

After some back and forth, since they don’t administer full or partial anesthesia for this – the best they do is administer some Novocaine, we decided that I’d be given a prescription for Xanax to make me completely loopy and as unaware as possible.

The morning of the appointment, I made sure to pack up all my drugs. I was nervous, but I was surprised at how well I’d held it together. Thanks to my nurse navigator from the Navigate Cancer Foundation (who was assigned to me via LIVESTRONG), fellow LIVESTRONG Leader, the woman who has dubbed herself my sherpa, Jody Schoger, (whom, at first, thought she was calling herself a knitted shawl), I was much less scared at the prospect that I might have breast cancer. I was terrified of the impending procedure, don’t get me wrong, but while my gut was telling me this was it – the big “C” – my rational mind was accepting what I was being told. I’m young. I’m healthy. My breast tissue is dense. I’d breast fed. It’s just calcification. It’s nothing. Hundreds of women get this. Don’t worry. The chances are slim.

I took my first dose of Xanax in the waiting room. I went into the room groggy enough that I don’t remember the names of the technicians or doctors, but I was clear enough to be aware of everything happening – and worse – of what was happening that I couldn’t see. And, despite the Xanax, the panic ensued.

You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything, even poverty, you can survive it. – Bill Cosby

“So, do men have to drop their testicles through a small hole in a table for this test?”

Met with a round of laughter.

“No, seriously. And, hey, are you at least putting on a topical anesthetic or something?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because it won’t hurt that badly. It’s just a shot of Novocaine, like at the dentist.”

“Last time I had Novocaine, I kicked the dentist in the crotch. You wanna take that risk? Please give me the topical anesthetic.”

“We don’t do that. It’s not necessary.”

“That’s easy for you to say, it’s not your breast that’s about to be impaled.”

Again, laughter. But I wasn’t laughing.

“Seriously, do men have to be awake during their biopsy?”

“Oh, no. They go under.”

“And why can’t I?”

“Because it’s not the same.”

“Oh, I get it. Men get all the drugs, all the comfort and get knocked out. We don’t get the drugs, but at the end, you slap a pink ribbon on it and that makes it better?”

Another round of laughter. And I was wincing and tearing up as the Novocaine was administered, with pulsing, repetitive shots into a most sensitive, nerve-filled part of my body. The doctors didn’t listen when I told them I have a high tolerance to Novocaine. I felt everything. EVERYTHING. A constant theme in my cancer story is that I know my body better than anyone. I know when something is wrong, despite what the tests show. And I know my tolerance level to things. So, doctors beware, when I say that I know something to be true, heed that warning. The Novocaine wasn’t doing much of anything. And I was feeling far more than just pressure. I felt the thick needle penetrate the skin, and deep into the tissue. I felt the burning and the suction as it ripped pieces of the suspected cells out of my dense breast tissue into into the plunger, like small worms, over and over and over again. And I felt the titanium chip that was placed where the calcifications were to mark the location in future testing.

But the technicians and doctor were having a rip-roaring time at the jokes I was cracking. I’m glad someone had fun that day. Because, I can tell you now, my right breast wasn’t laughing.

I went out to the waiting room, with a packet of ice on my breast (pink, of course – not my breast, the ice packet), and My Rock was there to drive me home to start the wait for test results.

Rica Mendes

Divorced mom of two kids. Full-time marketing professional at Axxun. Mary Kay Consultant. Bike shop employee. LIVESTRONG Leader. Bike commuter. Charity cyclist. Mountain bikeracer. Blogger at Rica's Livestrong Adventures And, now, as if I didn't have enough to do, breast cancer fighter. Diagnosis: 7/19/2011. Double Mastectomy: 8/19/2011. Chemo: 9/29/2011. Head will be shaved: 10/16/2011.