Every Day Should Be Breast Cancer Awareness Day

by Bruce W. Hall

“It’s breast cancer,” said our doctor. “It’s small, deeply imbedded, but present nonetheless and a very high grade.”

My wife, Deborah, age fifty-two at the time, and I sat in hazy disbelief as we tried to assimilate this stunning development. At such times, your throat gets dry and you have trouble speaking. A wave of exhaustion sweeps over you. Sometimes it’s not easy to accept the truth.

Ten years earlier, a similar routine examination revealed Deborah had colon cancer. Fortunately, it was discovered in time, which made surgery easier and recovery complete. Nevertheless, the discovery of cancer and subsequent treatment is rarely a brief process. Rather it’s one of continuing drama and clarity, from days to months, and often into years. There are lengthy periods of doubt, confusion, and insecurity.

What thoughts flashed through Deborah’s mind this time? Was she resentful, confused, in despair? I watched her face for some sort of signal. Her cheeks flushed. She turned to look at me. There was eye contact but I could tell she did not have the energy for conversation. She was somewhere else, perhaps once again at the precipice. I had to get a grip! This wasn’t time for self-indulgence. If I weren’t willing to put aside everything else, including my own worries, the effort required for total concentration would be lost.

“You’re going to be okay,” I tried to reassure her as we stepped outside the doctor’s office. “We’ll get through this together, as we did before. We’ll gather information as we need it, make informed decisions, and remain focused one day at a time.” The sky was dark, the air bitter cold, and a light rain fell as we got into the car. Both her mother and paternal grandmother had died of cancer, which was hard to forget at the moment. Meanwhile, it was important for me to remain focused, concentrate on Deborah’s needs, and to avoid my own temptation to feel anxious or despondent.

Like many people, I am impatient. This is a force in me, a mechanism that I don’t fully understand. It took concentrated energy to prepare myself to wait. Wait to see the doctor, wait for lab results, then wait again for further consultation. I’ve never forgotten the raw and overpowering sensation of life out of control. Later, through a combination of therapy and personal development coaching, I would discover a capacity to work within the limits of this powerful energy. Back then however, instinctually I just wanted it to be over as quickly as possible. I wanted results, right away!

Six weeks and a battery of testing later, the day for surgery finally arrived. It felt as though we’d been standing along a cliff edge, blindfolded. We couldn’t have made it without the strength of our relationship.

We entered Olympic Medical Center early in the morning of that fateful day anxious but upbeat. By noon, the procedure would be over. Then we’d be free of the shock. We could move forward. Happiness and peace of mind would be restored. However, not before one last series of events conspired to sap our strength and energy.

Like a congested airport, frequent delays arose as one scheduled surgery after another developed complications. This delayed Deborah’s surgery hour after hour. From 6:00 am until 9:00 pm that night, fifteen hours, as she lay in bed with a guide wire penetrating deep into her breast, not permitted to eat or drink anything, we held hands, talked, and occasionally she dozed. It was a time of immense vulnerability, when the future looked unpredictable and the difficulties of the world paled in comparison to the immediacy of our situation.

Meanwhile, as evening approached, a kind of eerie Stephen King atmosphere settled over the short stay facility. Patients and visitors, doctors and nurses who earlier arrived and departed with such great frequency, suddenly were gone. It was quiet. I peer out of Deborah’s room and down the hall. All the lights in the immediate area were dimmed or turned off completely except for those directly above the nurse’s station. The surrounding area was cast into deep, dark mysterious shadows. No phones rang. Nurses no longer appeared to update our schedule. Only a faint distant voice would occasionally break the silence as it drifted past the room.

Finally, at 9:00 pm a nurse arrived to break the spell. However, instead of experiencing relief as she prepared to wheel Deborah into the operating room, I was aggravated. It was so late I simply wanted to take my wife home. Then, the surgeon popped in for a quick pep talk. He looked tired after a fifteen-hour day. I questioned his ability and his judgment. He responded with great enthusiasm, “not to worry, I’ve had cookies and a Coke and I’m fine and ready to go!” Reluctantly, permission was granted. Putting Deborah through this experience again the next day was no longer an option.

Left alone with my thoughts, I recalled reading somewhere that one of the distinguishing features of any courageous human being is the ability to remain unutterably themselves in the midst of outside pressure. I was weary, fearful, and impatient. The only courageous one that night, I thought, lies on the operating table.

I looked around the room, and out into the darkness. How many other desperate spouses have sat through similar situations, crossing the same unknown terrain to a place of no illusions? How many looked to hope, diagnosis, and successful treatment for eventual release from the pain and uncertainty? No, this was not a Stephen King facility. It was a place of gathering for brave, optimistic, loving husbands who seek to transcend their own limitations in support of wives with breast cancer.

Deborah had a lumpectomy that night, with those all-important “clean margins.” Her cancer had been exorcised! Radiation therapy was a necessary safeguard, but the long-term prognosis remained excellent. She could lead a healthy, robust life. What began as a simple, routine mammogram detected high-grade cancer early enough to be treated successfully. Once again, we had triumphed over cancer!

It has been five years since that fateful day. After having a mammogram and an examination every six months, Deborah was recently declared, “cured.” This means that from now on she only needs an annual mammogram and exam. Fantastic!

If you have a wife, girlfriend, partner, sister, mother, aunt, or grandmother, please encourage them all have an annual mammogram. Every day of the year should be dedicated to breast cancer awareness. Early detection can make all the difference in the world to the women we value most in our lives.

Copyright © 2008, by Bruce W. Hall. All rights reserved.

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