Boomer Memoir

Breast Cancer at Thirty-six

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), this boomer-girl tells the story of her shocking diagnosis thirty years ago.

DrivingBoat

I called out from the shower: “Hey, John, my boob just deflated. You still wanna marry me? I heard a faint: “What are you talking about?” I cupped my right breast, bounced it up and down a few times, then compared it to the left one which was round and perky. There was no doubt about it. My right breast had gone flat.

I had known about the small lump in the top section of my right breast for some time. It was just a tiny, smaller-than-a-pea sized lump that sat just below the skin. My saline-filled implants had been installed four years prior. This new and improved C-set had replaced the original silicone model I got after that crude remark made by Scott Goodenough in Paris.

Scott was one of the male flight attendants recently hired by TIA. I remember how excited we were when the announcement came: “Trans International Airlines to Hire Male Flight Attendants!” Most of the cabin crew for this charter airline were single twenty-somethings, frisky and adventurous. Trips were often scheduled to last for a week or two, but often turned into three or four. Travelling with the same group for weeks at a time, sometimes laying over in romantic places, fostered closeness among the crew.

When I got the phone call from the crew scheduler assigning my upcoming trip, I listened attentively as the dispatcher read the proposed itinerary and crew roster. When I heard the names John and Scott, I giggled.

“Don’t get too excited.” the dispatcher said, “They’re all gay.”

“Ohhhh, it figures.” I sighed.

I packed for the eight day trip to Europe, drove forty-five minutes to the Hegenberger Road exit, parked my blue MG Midget in the employee parking lot, opened the door to the crew lounge, and Wham! I got that sudden shot of adrenaline that starts in your gut, zings up to your throat, does a loop-de-loop and races to the base of your spine, all in a fraction of a second. Sitting on the sofa was a drop-dead gorgeous, raven haired, liquid brown-eyed, athletically built twenty-something male in a flight attendant uniform. DO NOT tell me this gorgeous creature is gay! He must have read my mind. He stood up, approached me with a boyish half-crooked grin, a gleam in his eye and an out-stretched hand.

“Hi. I’m Scott Goodenough and I’m not gay.

His side-kick came over: “Hi. I’m Jim Wilson and I am gay.”

The three of us started with a light, nervous snicker and escalated into howls of laughter. The awkward moment had passed and we formed a bond that lasted well beyond this trip.

So, we went to Paris where we had a three day layover. Scott and I made plans to see the Eiffel Tower together. Like most tourist attractions the hype over-played the reality; you pay your money, stand in line, ride the elevator to the top, walk the final steps to the highest possible point, check out the view, take a picture, nod your head several times, call it good and go home. Eiffel tower: check!

Here’s what happened in the elevator: It was crowded; it’s always crowded. We were forced to huddle up. Scott and I had been first in line, therefore we went to the very back of the elevator. We went for the corner with him leaning against the wall, me standing in front of him. As the elevator filled to capacity, we were crushed together. The heat was rising. The temperature wasn’t the only thing rising. As is often the case, nobody spoke in the elevator. My eyes stopped seeing the other passengers, and my ears were hearing the labored breathing of two race-horses waiting for the start gate to open.

We barely made it back to the hotel. He fumbled through his pockets, and managed to find the key to his room  I hoped his roommate wouldn’t return any time soon. We stumbled from the door to the bed, groping and tearing at clothing. Jackets, shirts, jeans, and more went flying and we dove into the crisp white sheets. In Paris. France. Wow! After our frantic exchange, which took all of about four minutes, we slowed down, drew our heads apart, looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Uh, what was your name again?” I teased, which elicited more gales of laughter.

I rolled out of bed, walked naked to the mini-bar, knowing he would check out my butt. No worries, my bottom was in great shape. and my butt-tattoo was tastefully done. I retrieved two bottles of Perrier, and thrust one out to Scott. With his head propped up on the pillows, he cocked his head, gave me that boyish crooked half-smile, and said: “Hey, one tit is lower than the other one!”

THAT’S WHAT HE SAID! After that whole romantic scene we would remember for the rest of our lives; riding the elevator in the Eiffel Tower, feeling a strong connection, rushing back to the hotel to make urgent love, and THAT is what you have to say? One tit is lower?

YES.  I thought. I am well aware of that, you son-of-a-bitch. I hate you! I sighed and said:, “Yeah, I know.”

I glossed over the hurt and outrage I was feeling, not sure if I was angry with Mother Nature or Scott, and quietly extricated myself from the scene. As I stood in the hallway waiting for the elevator, I let the large lump in my throat dissolve, allowed the tears to slide down my cheeks, and vowed to call the plastic surgeon when I got home.

The boob job changed my life instantly! I no longer had to worry about toilet paper creeping out of my left bra cup. I had gotten myself a nice set of matched C’s. Breast augmentation had come a long way since the original silicone injections of the early 70s. The silicone gel sacks were safer than the shots, and the saline baggies were a step above those. Leakage from saline was simply absorbed by the body unlike traveling silicone which could lodge in unintended places.

Six years later, as I stood in the shower dumbfounded, I recalled the plastic surgeon’s words:

“These implants have safety valves; if the saline solution leaks, it’s possible to have an easy repair job by simply re-filling while the device is still in place.”

Device? Fine. Pump up the device! I had a week before my wedding. I bolted from the shower to call Dr. Egan in San Francisco.

My shoulders slumped on hearing the doctor was on vacation. I wondered if the hayseeds in Santa Cruz, my new home-town, were up on the latest procedures. I found Dr. Tomlinson in the Yellow Pages. I called.

“Can I come in for a fill-up? My valve popped and all the saline leaked out.”

The receptionist said: “Um, I think you better come in. We have a cancelation for tomorrow at 10:30.”

“Great! I’ll be there!”

Dr. Tomlinson, a no-nonsense military man, famous for doing reconstructive hand surgery on Viet Nam vets, listened patiently to my tale. I admit I felt frivolous hearing myself, considering his specialty was reconstructing hands that were blown up fighting a war. He  explained why my request was impossible. We made plans for the repair job the following month during which time he would remove the lump, do a frozen section to determine if it was malignant. If it was benign, he would toss it in the trash and do the augmentation, in which case I would wake up in recovery at 4:30 p.m. If malignant, he would close me up and I would awaken at 11:30 a.m. That settled, I would just have to get married as I was – lopsided. This time it was the left breast that was round and plump, while the right one drooped sadly like a limp sail waiting for the wind to pick up.

We had a lovely little ceremony at the Highlands Inn in Carmel. It was just the two of us, the minister, and the photographer on our balcony overlooking the Pacific. Nobody noticed or cared about my breasts. I looked beautiful in my white cut-lace Indonesian dress with the hanky hemline, the white satin pumps, and my nosegay of gardenias, roses, and stephanotis. We were pronounced husband and wife, had an elegant dinner, spent the night and returned to Santa Cruz the next day. The party was over. I had a date with Dr. Fred Tomlinson the following Wednesday.

I expected to walk out of Dominican Hospital with a fine new set of breasts on Wednesday afternoon. I cheerfully skipped along the pre-op procedures, took my relaxation pills, chatted amiably with the gurney-wheeling guy, and gave no credence to negative results.

As the anesthesia took effect, the room dissolved into shades of white, stainless steel, and bright lights. I heard distant voices and the clink, clink, clink of metal instruments. I felt a tugging sensation in my chest; no pain, just a pulling of flesh. I heard sound reverberating in the distance, like shouting in a tunnel or an echo in the Grand Canyon. One minute I heard doctor’s voices, the next I heard nurse’s voices in the recovery room.

“What time is it?” I sleepily asked.

No answer.

“WHAT TIME IS IT?” I shouted.

The nurse came over to my gurney, leaned over to check my arm tubes, checked her watch, and said: “11:20.”

I laid there stunned and speechless. The nurse turned to leave. She mumbled something about getting the doctor.

“No, stop! What do you mean, It’s 11:20? I’m only thirty-six. I have cancer? Am I going to die? But I want more kids. I’m supposed to have four. Will I be able to nurse my babies? Wait! Where are you going? I’m only thirty-six.”

My voice trailed off as she fled the room.

The nurse returned with Dr. T. dressed in green scrubs. He took my hand in his and in a voice barely above a whisper: “You’re gonna be fine. We’ll do a  radical mastectomy next week, followed by radiation and chemo. We caught it early. The cancer is non-metastasizing and the bad part was only ten centimeters in diameter. I’ll see you next week.”

I went home and read everything I could find on the subject. Then I got angry. A radical? Radiation? Chemotherapy? For a small, non-metastasizing lump of cancerous tissue that had already been removed? I don’t think so.

When I showed up for my consultation in Dr. Tomlinson’s office, I was prepared. I stopped him as he was explaining the proposed treatment plan. “I’m not doing any of that. I want a second opinion from Dr. Lagos at USF.”

He sputtered: ” But that’s all experimental. None of it has been approved.”

“I’ll take my chances. I need my medical records, please. I have an appointment with him tomorrow”.

“I need you to sign a liability release.”

“After I see him, we’ll talk about that.”

My appointment in San Francisco gave me the strength to do what my gut was screaming: “NO RADICAL!” Although this was thirty years ago, I can still see the warm brown eyes in that intelligent, caring, full-bearded face: “Forget the radical, do a sub-cutaneous mastectomy, get breast reconstruction, and follow up regularly with mammograms. If you were my daughter, I would say the same thing.”

After all this time, Dr. Tomlinson still remembers me as the feisty one who refused conventional treatment. He did my reconstruction, but refused to go larger than a C cup to keep me in proportion.

Seven years later, gravity took its toll, the left breast was sagging; the right will never move since it’s made out of the pectoral muscle pushed into the shape of a breast, supported by an implant behind the muscle wall. There wasn’t enough flesh left to keep the nipple alive. I remember the day the dried out shriveled mass of black tissue fell off and went down the shower drain. The tattooed replacement doesn’t function, but it looks alright from a distance and fine in a bikini.

For my final re-do, I went to Las Vegas, where the plastic surgeon to the show-girls gave me the D’s I wanted. Turns out Dr.T. was right: they are too big. Mother Nature has once again made her stand: the left one hangs lower than the right. If I run into Scott Goodenough, who may have saved my life,  I can flash him and say: “Let’s go to Paris!”

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25 thoughts on “Breast Cancer at Thirty-six

      • I flew for TIA from ’74 to the bitter end(’86). And I am a survivor too. Your sense of humor is great-don’t ever lose it! I’m convinced that mine helped me make it through exactly what you went through(but no implants). Laughter is good medicine.

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      • Pat, your name sounds familiar. I was the one who carried a parachute and went sky-diving all over the world. Hey, It’s not too late for implants. They make even better ones now! But, it not important to anybody but you. Congrats on surviving and thanks for getting in touch.

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  1. All that I can say is …………O M G ! who’s that girl? I think I like that ONE alot!

    sista,

    from Bklyn xo too much dear one …………..xo

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  2. Hi Carol. A poignant story that fits your personality! I was lucky 2X. I had a lump removed from my left breast in my early 30’s; about 5 years later another was removed from the same breast. Both benign and 25 years later so far so good!

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    • Alrighty then, sister … another thing we have in common! Thanks for sharing. It took me some time before I could share my story. Don’t know why, but I was embarrassed, ashamed, and afraid. Now, I hope my story can help somebody else who may be going through this. You and I were there before well before society became open about this and so many other subjects. Hats off to YOU, survivor!

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  3. Having heard most of my lovely wife’s stories this one touches my heart most deeply. It along with all the others define who and what she is… The most amazing woman in the world…Looking forward to our next elevator ride!!!!!
    You forever loving husband….

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  4. You are a survivor in every sense of the word!!!
    Your writing of “your story” is brilliant….you are a continuing inspiration…I’m one of the fortunate ones whose life you have touched.

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  5. What can I say? I never knew how serious your condition was You gallantly kept the pain from me I even had a trip planned which you encouraged me to take You are an unselfish brave little girl so proud to be your mom

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  6. Hey Carol we were in class together, great story and we’ll written. I wrote to you on my time line not sure if you’ll get it. I’ll redo it on an e-mail. I’ll be following you Best wishes Debi Reckling was Brown then Tiernan

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    • Yes, Debi Tiernan, I remember you. Too many name changes (me especially) make it hard to track some of us. By any chance, do you have a class photo? I would love to see it.(scan). I think I have photos in a box in a shed in California. Probably moldy by now. Photos will help jar my memory for TIA stories! Thanks for reading.

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