I sit on my deck making my dinner by peeling the foil off of
Hershey's Kisses thinking two thoughts. The first thought is that
someday, I'll write the Hershey's people to thank them for pulling me
through so many crises. The second thought is that it isn't cancer yet.
It's still just a lump.
On the mammogram, they found something odd so they covered my breast
with freezing jelly and showed me a fuzzy TV screen of what looked like
the layers of Jupiter with a huge black dot in it. The technician kept
frowning and redoing the Ultra Sound with different kinds of Jell-O.
I tell a few friends - fellow journalists, mostly. Professional gossips.
Within 24 hours, I take about 30 phone calls. Apparently, someone has
put out a news release.
A woman at work who loves catastrophes insists on setting me up with
cancer survivors. I'm not ready. An uber-extrovert wants to buy me a
drink, surround me with people. I will do nothing of the sort. I don't
have the energy to keep up with others. Besides, I now drink nothing
but Odwalla Superfood in a belated effort to take care of myself.
On the subway, by mistake, I hit the open door button while the train is
in motion. The authoritative voice of the transit agency comes over the
intercom: "State your name and emergency."
"Jan Johnson," I say. "I may have cancer."
My primary care physician is on vacation so it takes a week to get an
appointment. When I finally get in, she recommends that I wait three
months and take another mammogram.
Sorry, but I'm not wired that way. I am genetically incapable of
waiting three months to find out if I have cancer.
She says my next option involves a surgeon and she writes down her
recommendation. I call - and discover she's recommended a cosmetic
surgeon. Trouble is, I don't view cosmetic surgeons as doctors. I put
them in the same category as hairdressers. (No offense to
The cosmetic surgeon's office puts me on hold. I listen as a continuous
loop plays a taped advertisement for collagen injections. "You can get
them on your lunch hour!" chirps the taped voice. I find out that I
have to wait a month for an initial consultation for a breast cancer
biopsy, but I can come in on my lunch hour for collagen. "You can't
even get medical care in this country without somebody trying to sell
you something," I moan to my friend Lacy. "The reason why I can't get
in is probably because they're stacked up with collagen injections."
Lacy - the daughter of a doctor and a breast cancer survivor - makes me
ask for another referral. I cancel my far-off appointment with the
collagen peddler and begin anew - ultimately seeing a doctor who
"You weren't watching TV last night were you?" he asks as he pushes and
"Good. There was a show on breast cancer that would scare people to
I tell him there's nothing on TV as scary as a dot on your own
"It's best this way," says my friend Val, a nurse. She prefers complete
removal of tumors over needle biopsies because a needle inserted into a
cancerous growth and then pulled out could release a single cancer cell
that could seed cancer into my bloodstream and give me a much more
widespread problem than breast cancer. Then she advises me to get on
the Internet to learn everything I can. "No matter how good the surgeon
is," she says, "the person who cares the most about your health is you."
"How are you feeling?"
"Great," Val says. "The baby's kicking all the time."
I apparently morph into the world's most alluring woman. Men who
wouldn't give me a second glance when I felt all healthy and whole now
call me three times a day.
"What's the protocol on this?" I wonder. "Isn't there some kind of full
disclosure implied when you start liking somebody. Shouldn't you tell
them up front that you might have a serious disease? Or a missing
breast? A bad scar?"
"A scar is the last of your worries," laughs the colleague who loves
catastrophes. I have a dream that she touches me and blood comes out of
"You don't need to start that kind of relationship now," says Lacy.
Why not? Smoke 'em while you got 'em.
Lacy brings me a gift. It's a beautifully wrapped basket of chocolate
My father calls me every morning at about 6:01. "Are you awake?" He
tells me where my mother is. Fairbanks. Denali. The Yukon.
My mom, the worrier, was about to board a series of planes, boats and
trains with other senior citizens when I had that baseline mammogram. I
could see no reason to tell her before she left. There was nothing she
could do, except stay home and worry.
When she returns, my parents will fight as usual about how many days in
a row one can eat the same casserole and whether he absolutely has to
wear a tie, but while she's gone he's a lovesick mooncalf. In the past
five decades, they've been apart for only a few recent vacations. Now
his emphysema prevents him from taking trips. She loves to travel.
"Are you awake?"
It's 6:02. I tell him about the upcoming surgery, which now is only a
Other callers love to enumerate long lists of friends and acquaintances
dead of breast cancer. I quit answering the phone so I don't have to
listen to terrible tales of simple surgeries gone bad, never-healing
When my cat got into a fight with the neighborhood tom, she needed
stitches. She came home from the vet's and immediately crawled into the
closet. Anybody who came near her emerged bleeding. I try to learn
from her good example and draw my own forces close.
I eat vegetables. Drink Odwalla Superfood. I decide to finish my
second novel. Read to school kids. Volunteer at Habitat for Humanity.
I call my surgeon's office. I mention what I've read, issues raised by
friends, Val's concern about seeding cancer cells. I ask how long I'll
be black and blue, how big the scar will be, when I will be able again
carry a 25-pound bag of cat food up the steps. The nurse answers but
ends each sentence with the word "okay?" as if I'm going to hang up and
let her go back to Something Important. Finally, she lays it on the
line. "I think," she says, "you should quit talking to your friends."
The morning of the surgery, Lacy picks me up. She makes me leave my
biographies of Joan of Arc, Crazy Horse, and that Thomas Mann
tuberculosis novel on the nightstand. Lacy is firm. "You don't bring
to a hospital any book where you know the hero dies."
The night before going to the hospital, I hiked up a steep butte. This
morning, I put on a gown labeled "hospital property" and a cotton
bathrobe with stripes like those prisoners used to wear before human
rights organizations declared them too dehumanizing. An orderly puts my
feet into disposable slippers. He wheels me to x-ray.
The hospital has turned me into an invalid. The passivity is seductive.
There's a pleasure to giving in, giving up, letting others do for you.
But at Ultrasound, I regain my Self.
I ask if the needle that injects the breast with blue dye will penetrate
the tumor itself. The nurse who kept saying "okay?" assures me it will
not. "Oh yes, it will," says the radiologist in charge of the blue dye.
He looks over his glasses and tells me not to worry. He assures me it
could not possibly seed cancer cells into my bloodstream. "I've never
heard of that," he says.
But I don't believe him and I don't trust him. All healing is faith
healing and I have no faith in him - or quite frankly - the surgeon, the
hospital, the medical system in general. I inquire about options.
"Well, we could dye the area around the tumor and take out the whole
area. It would mean removing more breast tissue."
It doesn't sound like anoption. It sounds like a threat. I ask for
five minutes alone to think about it.
Negotiations with God go into a final round. But lying on a hospital
bed, naked but for a hospital property gown makes me realize I don't
have much to trade.
The doctor and technician return.
"Do what you have to do." I hand my life over to the Unknown
Radiologist and consider who will take my cats when I'm gone.
More Jell-O. Jupiter and the dot appear on the TV screen.
"Looks like a cyst to me," mutters the technician. She shakes my foot.
The radiologist ignores her and inserts a three-inch needle into my left
breast, just outside the nipple aureole. I watch the screen.
"More interior," says the tech.
The radiologist pulls the needle out and jabs again.
"Aspirate," the tech says. And on screen, I watch the black dot
implode, like a vacuum-tube TV shutting off.
The tech pronounces victory. "It's gone!"
"It was a cyst," the radiologist says, as if he's announcing something.
I grab the syringe and study its contents - a greenish/brown fluid the
same color and consistency of Odwalla Superfood.
I discard the striped robe and gown on the hospital bed. The short-stay
nurse talks at my back as I race for the elevator. She's telling me
about painkillers. I don't listen. All I can feel is relief.
My friend Theresa picks me up and immediately hands me a bag of homemade
cookies. At home, I call about 70 people with the good news. The phone
rings all day and late into the night. Another friend gets through early
the next morning. "What are you doing?"
"Eating cookies for breakfast."
"What happened to negotiations with God? Where are the vegetables?"
"I signed the chocolate clause under duress. Besides, if God wanted me
to give up chocolate, He wouldn't have sent the cookies."
When we hang up, it's almost 8 a.m. and I realize that I haven't heard
yet from the lovesick mooncalf. I call him.
"Are you awake?"
He wants me to tell him the story. Not just once, but again. His
favorite part is "It's gone!" He can't hear it enough because he
doesn't hear it very often. At his age, he's attending weekly funerals.
So he loves to hear about the vanishing dot on Jupiter.
But enough about me. I switch the topic. "So, what's on Mom's
itinerary today? Sitka? Ketchikan?"
He sighs. "On the boat. She's finally coming home. Boat docks in
Seattle on Saturday."
Now that I'm not going to be recovering from surgery, I decide to go to
Seattle to meet Mom and the fellow cruisers. Finally, with the tumor
vanquished, I can think about somebody besides me, me, me.
This decision perks up the Lovesick Mooncalf. "When you see your mom,
tell her I'm sitting right here by the phone."
A follow-up mammogram detects "nothing of interest" in my
breast tissue. This is true. Nobody is taking any interest in my
breasts. No suitors, but I'm not fielding 30 calls a day either. It's
My most frequent callers are my parents, who ring me up so that they can
fight in my presence. The primary area of discord now is how to
celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in June.
The biggest difference between now and then is that I might be
marginally more "awake." I keep my hospital wristband on a candle atop
my desk to remind myself that no matter how lousy a day I might have at
work, it's better than being in the hospital.
The colleague who loves catastrophes has left the company. Val has
given birth a healthy baby girl.
© Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson has been a journalist in television, radio and newspapers.
Currently, she works part-time in corporate communications and writes
fiction full-time in Portland, Ore.
Submit your comments on this story to our MoxieTalk
discussion group by clicking here!
You can also send your comments directly to the author using the
You can do both by typing your response below,
submitting it and then copying it, going to MoxieTalk, and pasting it
into the form there for posting a message.
Please include your e-mail address if you
would like the author to be able to write you back.
Copyright 2002 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved