Bottom of a Birdcage

Jon and I settle in the last two available chairs in the long corridor that runs through the heart of the neuroscience department. I am by far the youngest person wearing a hospital gown. Jon and I continue the Scrabble game that we had begun a week earlier on his iPad. I am completely freaked out, stewing about the nurse’s pre-op warnings. She had casually mentioned that I may look blue for a few days, but not to worry, my body would naturally flush out the isotopes. I can’t stop obsessing about the Smurfette-inducing needles that are to be injected into my nipple. The thought makes my toes curl. It takes all my energy not to run for the door. I can do this. I can do this. Will I seriously be blue?

I let out a deep sigh, frustrated that I can’t channel my mind to formulate a Scrabble word. The board is completely closed off. I know the top right-quadrant will never be utilized, as it would require one of us opening the triple word score for the other. Jon gets up to go to the bathroom then joins me again visibly pale. He repeats this pattern two more times while I stare catatonically at the Scrabble board. He must be nervous and his bowels are paying the price.

Jon trying to distract me begins a detailed explanation of how Canada provides, as well as funds, much of the world’s isotopes, which makes screening and imaging possible for millions of people around the globe. I try to listen to him but fail miserably because all I can picture is a huge needle of radioactive guck with my name on it. Jon’s well-educated on this subject, but I don’t want to discuss isotopes.

Tired of plotting, I throw down the word ziti. I need to get rid of my z or it will work against me if Jon goes out. Ziti is a type of pasta that looks like a tube, which you can poke your finger through if you were so inclined. I divert my attention to Jon, massaging his shoulder while he groans with pleasure, like a kitten purring. I notice we now have everyone’s attention as his eyes roll back in his head with pleasure. Tomorrow is Jon’s birthday. He will turn fifty. I have clearly blown any chance of throwing him a memorable celebration, after all I will be drugged, apparently blue, and in bed minus a tit.

A nurse appears and asks us to follow her down another hall. She apologizes for the makeshift workspace that will be used for my procedure, explaining that the examination rooms are at capacity. We stop at the end of the passage, where a hospital bed is pressed up against the wall. Exposed shelves laden with supplies line the far side of the space that could easily double as a janitorial closet. She pulls a curtain around the end of the bed, creating the illusion of privacy. I’m too nervous to be annoyed with the subpar setting. Jon kisses me, wishes me luck and leaves. He can’t stomach what’s about to happen. I lie on my back, fixated on the ceiling. I breathe deeply but it fails to calm my nerves and tears fill my eyes. I shut them, hoping to prevent myself from falling apart. A rogue tear escapes and rolls down my cheek, which I immediately wipe away. I need to have these injections. It’s the only way we’ll know if cancer has spread. I have to be still. I can do this! I repeat the mantra in my mind, starting to regain control of my fleeting thoughts. I’m no longer a flight risk.

The doctor appears, mumbles an apology and informs me he won’t be freezing my nipple; he doesn’t see the point because the freezing itself is painful. Shit! He promises to be incredibly fast with the three injections, and then closes with, “It will hurt.” No shit!

My entire body is rigid as thick sludge jams into my nipple, the pain is excruciating. My face clenches, I wince and hold my breath. Jesus, Mother, Shit, Fuck! Then the doctor pulls the needle out. Before I can catch my breath, BAM, in goes the second needle. Sweet Jesus! Then BAM, in goes the final needle and finally it’s over! I let out a deep sigh of relief, tears flowing down my face. What a tortuous send-off to my right breast. Jon reappears, coffee in hand, he looks as miserable as I feel.

We sit, waiting for the isotopes to travel from my nipple to the sentinel node, the first node through which cancer would travel from my breast into my lymphatic system; the one single thing we are praying hasn’t occurred. I am terrified that cancer may already be in other parts of my body. I’m escorted into the imaging room and manipulated into an uncomfortable position sprawled on the expansive machine, with my right arm straight up by my ear, and my upper torso titled slightly to the left. Lying half on my back and partially on my side, I’m told the whole imaging process will take about twenty minutes. I’m already uncomfortable, so the idea of holding this position for that length of time seems unfathomable.

The technician points to the screen above me, at a small white dot, which she informs me is my sentinel node. I look at it, fixated, overwhelmed with a surge of conflicting emotions, speechless. There it is! The technician seems pleased that she has the required imaging for my surgery. She explains the sentinel node doesn’t always show up on the screen, forcing the surgeon to find it blindly in the operating room. Considering the hell I just endured to secure this imaging, I’m thankful that she found it. I remain transfixed on the little white dot. It’s that dot that will determine how intense and how long my cancer treatment will be. If my pathology comes back positive, meaning cancer cells are present in the sentinel node then I may need another surgery. The thought of having to go back under the knife makes me panic. I feel like I can’t breathe, my arm is starting to cramp from the odd positioning and my breast is extremely tender from the injections in addition to my recent biopsy. I struggle to keep it together. I know I’m on the edge of a full-blown ugly cry, the kind I can’t catch my breath from. I focus on filling my stomach, then my chest with air, moving from shallow to deep exhalations. I know I should be thrilled the technician found what she needed, but instead I feel vulnerable and scared.

I stretch my cramping arm and compose myself before walking back into the corridor. Jon takes one look at me and informs me my skin is green. Scratch Smurfette, I now visualize myself as a soon to be one-breasted leprechaun. Nuclear waste spreads through my body. I am green, next stop mastectomy…all of this, and I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in twelve hours, my mouth tastes like the bottom of a birdcage and all I want is a toasted sesame bagel and a tall glass of ice water.


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