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Coverage of cancer is often about numbers: incidence figures, risk ratios, five-year survival percentages, mortality rates. All those numbers are, of course, important. But so, too, is every individual story that underlies the numbers. Here is one such story.
Text by P.J. Hamel • Photographs by Jon Gilbert Fox
"You have cancer."
When I hear those words, I feel like I'm being told I'm going to die—not in some misty future, with my family and friends gathered lovingly at my bedside, as angels play their harps, but tomorrow. At dawn. By firing squad. I feel blank and emotionless because the concept is so big and so foreign that my usual responses simply can't encompass it. My skin prickles, head to toe, as all feeling drains out of me. I can no longer understand what the radiologist is saying; I can barely hear his voice through the panicky clamor in my head. I sit open-mouthed, nodding from habit as he smiles sympathetically, outlining the treatment he's advising.
Once I'm outside his windowless office, the only words I remember are ". . . a young woman such as yourself." Gosh, he thinks I'm young—how nice! The rest is lost. Just like me.
About 180,000 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. That's a statistic—a number that conjures up a faceless, milling crowd. But each woman in that crowd has her own individual, personal story.
May 10, 2001, was the day I became a cancer statistic. This is my story.
Getting the diagnosis
Early May in the Upper Connecticut River Valley marks the final transition from still-winter to almost-summer. It can be a rough few weeks. Car tires chatter over roads that have been turned into washboards by April's constant thaw-freeze-thaw cycle. A day in the 70s can give way to snow flurries the next morning. Cutting daffodils, scraping ice off your windshield, and swatting blackflies are random, unordered occurrences during this capricious month. But this year, 2001, the progress toward summer is smooth.
On Wednesday, May 2, I have an appointment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for my yearly mammo- gram. By age 47, I've gotten used to the process: "Stand close...turn your chin... you'll feel some pressure...hold your breath, please..." Today, however, the technician has trouble with my right breast; she has to take several shots before she gets one she deems satisfactory.
A couple of weeks earlier, during my annual physical, Dr. Tanya Luttinger, a resident who was doing a rotation with my regular doctor, mentioned that she thought she could feel a thickening in my right breast. She asked if I was scheduled for a mammogram soon. I was, as it happens. "Good," she said. Oh, I thought, she's probably just being ultracareful. She always thinks she sees or feels something or other. Whatever.
The day after my mammogram, I get a call from the mammography service. Could I come back for another picture? Sure. Back to DHMC I traipse, back to the chilly radiology room, the open gown, more and different angles.
The next day, Friday, I get another call: There's definitely something there. Could you come in for a biopsy on Monday? Sure . . .
I'm still not feeling really worried. Coincidentally, a colleague at work had just had her annual mammogram, followed by a callback, and then a biopsy—which had been negative. Plenty of middle-aged women go through this, I tell myself. Hitchcock is so careful. This year's mammogram is just turning out to be a little more involved than usual, I think.
P.J. Hamel—a senior editor at King Arthur Flour Company, headquartered in Norwich, Vt.—describes herself professionally as a "baker and blogger." She writes the King Arthur catalog, creates recipes, has written cookbooks, and blogs about baking on the company's website. Personally Hamel is, among many other roles, a cancer survivor—and she has blogged about cancer since shortly after her diagnosis in 2001. Writing, she explains, is a thread that has run through her entire life. In this feature, she reflects on the experiences and emotions, beginning eight years ago, of being diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer.
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