By Carly Courtney.
“Is this a good time?” she asked, my dying phone clamped between my cheek and shoulder, both hands on the wheel, on a highway I didn’t know the name of, passing a town I didn’t recognize.
It wasn’t. The woman on the phone was calling about my biopsy the day before.
“Some of your results are back, and pathology recommends immediate excision.”
She continued babbling about the tests, but the only phrases I caught were “color strain” and multiple science-y words that start with “m.”
I hung up with the sensation in my stomach you get when you see police lights in your rear-view. My phone had 2% battery left, and I desperately needed GPS, so I sat awkwardly in the doorway of a McDonalds charging my phone and ordering iced coffee after iced coffee. Eventually I made my way along a windy road through the foothills that led me to Auburn where I found I-80, and my way home from visiting my mom and the hospital over spring break.
I had never been so happy to see the dorms when I pulled into princess parking (one of the five parking spots right outside the dorms) and texted my roommate to come help me unload my stuff. The medical assistant told me I wasn’t allowed to lift anything over five pounds with my left arm for five days after the biopsy. “No five for five!” she said, trying to be cheery and helpful. It’s hard to be cheery with a brick-sized ice pack shoved down your bra.
“What did they say?”
I focused on meticulously folding a pair of socks. “They, uh, recommend immediate excision.”
I stared at the clothes in my suitcase angrily, as if it was their fault I was stuck in a paper hospital gown for half of my spring break. They would remain packed, at the foot of the bed, until the following Tuesday, when I’d get my surgery date. “Passive-aggressive suitcase problems,” I called it to my friend over an excess of margaritas one night.
When I peeled off the bandage after the biopsy, I was shocked to find that there was only a tiny hole where the needle entered. In my mind, I had been stabbed again and again, leaving my breast pock-marked and bruised. My vanity hardly allowed me to be thankful I only added one more scar, making it an uneven three; two from previous biopsies, one from this one.
The next day I pulled off my pajama shirt to see a sickly green and purple bruise stretching from my armpit to the center of my breast. Squeezing my eyes shut and looking away from the mirror, I turned on my Pandora station and climbed into the shower. As the steam and scalding water started to whisk me away from my morning, “Cancer” by My Chemical Romance started playing. Until that morning, I had always thought that it was unrealistic when people laughed and cried simultaneously in movies.
When my mom arrived to pick me up the day before my surgery, our hug lasted longer than I care to admit. Even though she’s tiny and bony, she hugs like a bear, and I couldn’t hold back the tears that had been pricking my eyelids for weeks.
“Have you seen that one movie where the guy goes under anesthesia and he can’t move but he can still think and feel pain?” my little brother asked me the next morning as I sat at the breakfast table, not eating, while he ate chocolate chip waffles across from me. “Gee, thanks,” I said, an eye roll supplementing my response. I didn’t need his help to be scared, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to give it.
After stripping and pulling on the paper gown, blue booties and hair net, and removing all 13 piercings, I beckoned for the nurse to come back in. I checked my phone when I was situated on the gurney bed to find five new texts from my mom.
Can I come in?
Tell them to let me come in
If u go into surgry with out letting me come in, ur walking home
im coming in
After my mom came in and gave my surgeon the third degree, I finally got a straight answer in layman’s terms as to why I was even there. One of the results came back unfavorably, and the other came back fine. To be safe, they wanted to remove the mass and send it to pathology to get a straight answer.
Staring at the ceiling on the operating table, I was stuck with an IV and stamped with EKG leads on my chest, stomach, back, and thigh, which would leave suction cup marks for the next week. It would look like I had a date with an octopus and things got a little carried away. One of the nurses stuck a nasal cannula into my nose, and the cold oxygen came as a shock. Suddenly, the air smelled sickly sweet and I went under, swimming in a timeless sleep. I had a distant realization that I was staring at the blue sheet they hung in front of my face to hide the surgery from me, but I was somewhere else at the same time. I was dreaming with my eyes open, and the spell was only broken when they called my name every two seconds, or so it seemed. “I’m great, thank you,” is what I thought I was saying when they asked how I was doing, but I wouldn’t bet any money on it.
“We’re all done here!” my surgeon said, beckoning for me to lean forward. “I want to show you the incision.” They removed the sheet and I had the intention of leaning forward to look, but I couldn’t lift my head at that point. “It’s going to be a big bandage, and I don’t want that to scare you.” I remember thinking he had a beautiful voice, and then I was back on the gurney in my little post-op sheet cubicle.
After getting dressed, I laid back down on the gurney right as my mom came to fetch me. As I somehow made it to the car, she decided we were going to In and Out Burger for my first meal in 24 hours. It was glorious. I had never had one of their grilled cheese sandwiches before, and the crisp veggies and melty cheese were just what the doctor ordered.
Two weeks later, I got to remove the steri-strips covering the incision. Where I had two ugly pink scars from previous procedures, I now had one thin purple line, delicately and naturally arching on my breast. I almost cried. For a month, I had bruises, punctures, bandaids, stitches, steri-strips, and more bruises covering my chest, and now everything was gone. Just that thin, hardly noticeable scar. I sat down at the computer and rocked back and forth on the awkward dorm chairs, blindly checking social media in between classes. As I followed a link to a Buzzfeed quiz about superheroes, my phone rang. It was a Sacramento number, where Point West surgery center is located. Manually attempting to slow my breath, I calmly answered, my surgeon on the other line.
I thanked him and answered his questions about the healing process, and then:
“So, the results came back from your biopsy-”
I turned to glance at my roommate, and as she looked up from her homework, my rocking motion halted.
“-and nothing is catching our eye here. It’s probably safe to say you’re fine.”
My face flushed and I tried not to melt into a puddle of giddy sobs as I thanked him and hung up. It was as if the lead weight that had been sitting in the pit of my stomach for weeks had disappeared. I couldn’t stop smiling, and as I sat down to write my daily poem for National Poetry Month, I tried to contain my elation in the structure of a haiku:
It’s not cancer, bitch!
So suck my immune system,
I’m going topless.
* * *
I tipped the small vial of “Lucky 7 Piercing Potion” on its end, finger absorbing what I guessed to be some mixture of vitamin E and lavender oil, and smoothed the mixture over the light pink raised scar on my left breast. As my finger reached the end of the two inch crescent, I froze.
“Hey, babe? Can you come look at this?”
My boyfriend Stephen slowly untangled his lanky legs and ambled over to the bathroom, setting down his programming homework on the bed next to his pit-lab mix, LeRoy.
I grabbed his hand, his index finger beneath mine. I ran our fingers over the scar, the oil shining in the dim yellow light. A small cringe caught his attention. He wrapped his arms around me and rested his chin on my head. “When did you first notice this?”
I shrugged my shoulders under his embrace, “Didn’t think much of it, but now it’s starting to hurt.”
“Call your doctor, okay babe?”
I nodded and pressed my cheek into his chest, eyes examining the dingy shower curtain, looking without seeing.
A few weeks later, I finally emailed my doctor, the result of much nagging on Stephens behalf (the son of a nurse, I guess I was doomed to be medically responsible from the start). I got a response much quicker than I would have liked. I supposed I had hoped he wouldn’t email me back and the problem would fix itself.
Hi Carly, I’ll go ahead and get you scheduled for re-excision.
He continued on to describe in more detail than I really needed how this time he was going to disregard the aesthetics of the procedure and take out as much tissue as he thinks is necessary. I was unnerved by how many times he emphasized that the surgery would not leave a clean scar like last time.
I tried not to think about it. This time around, I was determined to keep it to myself. Last spring, after telling one of my lacrosse teammates who happened to be an RA, I ended up winning “Most Inspiring Student” or something to that effect. I had to walk through the chittering mass of the resident student body and up to a make-shift stage, and stand there long enough to take my bright pink breast cancer awareness pens and thank them, though inside, I was already running back to my seat. I find nothing inspiring about IV’s and paper gowns. This time, they could keep their pens.
After receiving a call from my surgeon’s secretary in the middle of my British Literature class, it was hard to continue pushing it to the back of my mind. I was preoccupied with the idea, and felt the familiar lead weight return to my stomach. Having a real date, having a scribbled “surgery” on November 14th of my calendar in shaky black Sharpie made it impossible to ignore. I put my ibuprofen and vitamins in a drawer (no blood thinners two weeks before) and hoped I could house my apprehension there as well.
As part of the Creative Writing Club, the head of the English department had asked me to write up a proposal for the Student Government Association to fund our AWP (Annual Writers and Writing Programs conference and book fair) trip the following spring. I had written it and checked it twice, and asked my club-mates if anyone would be able to attend the meeting early the next morning. It was selfish, but I was mentally exhausted and sleeping sounded like a better alternative than trying to bureaucratize with the SGA. My friend and Creative Writing Club-mate Emily volunteered, and I had thought that that was the end of that.
Not only was our proposal denied on the basis of missing information and the unspoken basis that the public service kids are always trying to keep the artists down, but the head of the English department cornered me in between classes and told me how disappointed she was in me, how I really let her down, how this is not the kind of thing she would expect from me, all the usual stuff that makes one want to crawl into a hole and remain there. Trudging up the stairs to my next class, the lead weight in my stomach joined by one crushing my chest, I tried to think of anything else but how my body had betrayed me and how I had apparently betrayed the Creative Writing Club.
“If that happened, then this would happen.” That was the prompt for my poetry class that afternoon. As my poetry teachers have always said, you write about what you need to write about, and though I desperately wanted not to, the words flowing out of my pen were centered on my upcoming surgery. “If this time the biopsy comes back positive…”
As I read the poem aloud, the tears that had been threatening to fall since my phone call with the hospital the day before could hold back no longer. The fear I felt, coupled with the sinking disappointment and burning shame June had instilled in me just an hour before destroyed any chance of composure. My voice was cracking before I reached the last line, but as I attempted to read it, I broke. I broke under the weight of school, and work, and responsibilities, and I broke under fear. Crying, I ran out of the room and leaned against the cool tile wall of the bathroom, paper towels rubbing my nose and eyes raw.
That night after work, I surrendered any chance of being productive to my anxiety and curled up in Stephen’s arms, encircled by his support. I asked him to drive me to the hospital the following week; my mom was out of town and my roommate had essentially stopped speaking to me (due to the financial stresses of moving out of the dorms, and having different ways of running a household), and I needed his strength to keep moving forward.
After much shift-switching, Stephen was able to get November 14th off to take me down to Point West. That morning, we had set an alarm for 7:45am, and like usual, slept through it. The lack of caffeine and food that accompanies fasting before surgery incited in me a rage that was multiplied exponentially when we stopped time after time for roadwork. Everyone on the road had personally wronged me. Arms wrapped around my knees, I glared at the cars in front of us, then at the clock, then at my feet, then back at the cars. It took all of the little strength I had not to growl like a cornered dog. “We’re not gonna make it.” I said.
“We’re gonna make it, it’ll be fine.”
We made it. Pulling in to the parking lot at 12:25pm, we were there a whole 20 minutes earlier than we had to be. We sat in the waiting room of the Women’s Health surgery center and waited.
“Carly?” A nurse asked the waiting room, which was empty save for me and Stephen. I looked over at him, he looked at the nurse. “Can he come?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“No, sorry, but we’ll come and get him around 2:30pm so he can pull the car around.”
I kissed Stephen, hitched up my pants, and followed the nurse down the hall, and into the room. They put me in the same sheet cubicle as before. I told the nurse this, but she was not as amused as I was. Though I also explained to her that I’ve had almost this same procedure down here before, she proceeded to explain to me that I had to take off all my clothes, put on a silly blue hair net and shoes, and crawl under the blankets. Like last time, they brought me a urine sample cup to put any jewelry in. And like last time, I kept it.
After disrobing and taking out all 15 piercings, yanking out the one in my nose, unscrewing the one in my belly button, unclipping the ones in my ears, and twisting off the ones in my nipples, I crawled under the slightly warm cotton blankets and waited. Signing the paperwork all over again, I made bad jokes to the nurses, more to make myself smile than anything.
My surgeon walked in with a scruffy beard, the only new part of this experience. He looked old. He asked the nurses chatting outside of my sheet curtain if he could borrow one of them, and proceeded to mark the area for excision with a purple pen. The two inch tall, one inch wide crescent he drew was a far sight bigger than the line he drew last time. I sighed, and examined my chipping toe nail polish through my sheer blue cotton booties.
I walked into the operating room, followed by a small parade of nurses, holding various cords and wires attached to me. I got all twisted and tangled up with the IV bag carrying nurse, and limbo’d underneath the tube to scoot up onto the table. Both arms stretched out and strapped down to my sides, I felt like Christ the Redeemer. We both had robes on, at least.
They fitted the nasal cannula around my ears, taped over the piercings I “accidently” left in my tragus, helix, and lower back, and wiped me down with the orange-yellow iodine solution. “Alrighty, is everyone ready here?”
The nurses and anesthesiologist recited their little speeches (“This is prepped, that looks good, and I have no concerns”), and the surgeon beckoned for them to inject the anesthesia through the IV. “Hey, so do I get the sleepy drugs through my arm and through this nose thing?” I asked, trying to point before remembering my arms were strapped down. My surgeon shook his head and said, “No,” (eloquent, I know) and the anesthesiologist patted my right hand.
“Ah, vow of silence I see. Got it, no talking.”
A nurse in the corner laughed a little, and then I passed out. Last time, I was sort of almost conscious, but this time, I was out like a light. I don’t even remember them asking if I was okay.
I was unstrapped and wheeled out of the OR on my gurney, still mostly asleep. Probably smart they didn’t have me walk. When I got in to the room, they closed the curtains and I floated in a uncomfortable sleep-like state. I felt uneasy, but mostly tired. I tried to speak, but only air came out. I wanted to ask for Stephen, but sound eluded me. In a moment of lucidity, I tugged off my hair net and took the tape off my ears, then passed right back out.
Some amount of time later, a nurse came in to let me know that Stephen was pulling the car around, and I should get dressed. I nodded and sat up, and sort of shimmied out of my paper gown. Looking down at the plastic wrap-like bandage that covered a thick wad of cotton gauze, I pouted momentarily in my drugged-up state because I wasn’t able to get one of my nipple rings back in. I slid in my nose ring and stood up to get dressed, but quickly sat back down without even a minute amount of grace. Wrestling my unwilling body into my clothes, I thanked my past self for not wearing shoes with laces. I couldn’t even get my belt on.
The nurse rolled me out into the hall and into the elevator, just as my mom and stepdad walked out of the adjacent one. “Mom!” I said weakly, pointing. “Mom!”
I waved and caught my mom’s attention. The nurse paid me no mind until my mom entered the elevator and gave me a hug.
“Oh, is this your mom?”
I ignored her. In my opinion, the one good thing about surgery is that it gives you the right to be a total ass, because you can blame it on the drugs.
My mom chattered at me while my stepdad stood in the corner, holding a bag that said “Thank you!” and had Japanese characters. Mmm, I thought. Sushi.
I hugged my mom and acquired the sushi, and then Stephen and I were on our way back up the hill. I pulled off my shoes and sat cross-legged on the car seat, a takeout box of sushi on my lap. After attempting to force some down my unwilling throat, I decided to stick to water. Even ginger ale was too strong! I felt sick the entire drive, and almost had Stephen pull over quite a few times, but managed not to throw up until we pulled onto his street. Dismissing the need for shoes, I ran as quickly as my still slightly drugged legs could carry me into his bathroom, clutching my mouth.
Emerging in pajamas, tired, and smelling of mint toothpaste, I crawled onto his bed and lay down face first.
“You know babe, we can watch that musical you downloaded the other day, if you want.”
It was as if the drugs dissipated through the air around me. I sat up and snuggled up into his lap as he clicked on Les Miz. I impressed myself by staying awake through the sad, yet triumphant last scene, and slowly slipped into a restless sleep. My nine hour shift the following day haunted my dreams, along with imagined emails bearing biopsy results, but slowly, the nausea faded. Though sunlight licked at my tired eyes, I slept through my three alarms, like usual.
Carly S. Courtney is a current undergraduate Creative Writing major in her third year at Sierra Nevada College on Lake Tahoe. She has interest in poetry, creative nonfiction, and has worked closely with Gayle Brandeis and Patricia Smith.