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I'm a Ticking Time Bomb

What it's like to be diagnosed with cancer at age 33.

I can't tell if she's concerned or just concentrating. I don't want to believe that there's anything to be concerned about, so I decide she must just have one of those deep thinking faces.

"Well, it doesn't look like a cyst…" she says.

It doesn't look like a cyst because it isn't a cyst.

Monday

Four days later, I'm back for a mammogram and ultrasound. The mammogram technician is a third generation San Franciscan. She tries to distract me with small talk and I let her. What do you do? Where are you from?

My turn. "How long have you been doing this?" 37 years.

Longer than I've been alive.

It seems like she's taking a lot of x-rays. I lose count. This feels like a bad sign.

"Are you crying because I'm hurting you?"

No.

It does hurt, though. Because I'm young and my breast tissue is dense, they have to apply a lot of pressure in order to get a good image. I can see the x-rays on the screen and they're kind of beautiful in a strange way; the orb of my breast lit up with this newly discovered supernova. Otherworldly. My very own exploding star. How could something so pretty be bad?

Luckily I'm not shy about being naked. Getting a mammogram is like the world's least sexy photo shoot. Turn a little to the left. A little bit more. Lift your chin. Hold your breath. Don't move don't move don't move.

She leaves to show the doctor what she's found and then returns to take more.

By the time she takes me to the ultrasound, she can't even make eye contact with me anymore. I don't blame her. I imagine that this many years of breaking bad news would wear on a person.
I've spent virtually no time in a waiting room today, though it all feels like waiting. I watch the seconds of the clock because it's easier than watching the disappointment on the sonographer's face. When I can't stand looking at the tick tick tick tick, my eyes wander to the ceiling. I study every seam, every symmetry, every irregularity. There's a long, narrow piece missing near the cupboards and I can't decide which bothers me more: that it's not there or that I can't remember what it's called. What the fuck is that called? Particle board? It's not particle board. I still don't know.

I've been here for more than two hours and start to wonder if I've gotten a parking ticket yet. I mean, come on.

The doctor arrives and they speak some foreign language. He's curt with her; she's never standing in just the right place. She doesn't anticipate what he needs before he needs it. I don't like it.

Tick tick tick tick.

This clock is all tick and no tock. What's that about?

"What's the likelihood that someone my age with no family history of breast cancer—of any kind cancer—would get it?"

"It's not common but it's not rare."

Okay.

When he finishes the exam, he removes his gloves with an efficient snap and washes his hands briskly. Doctorly.

I'm very concerned, he says. This is worrisome. He doesn't fucking look concerned. In addition to the main lump that I can feel, they've found at least two more—one in my lymph nodes. Large portions of my breast are calcified. "It looks like cancer. And when it looks like cancer, it's usually cancer…"

This is deeply offensive to me. Yo, doctor. Imma let you finish, but I have some of the best breasts of all time. The best breasts of all time!

I cry and he says nothing to make me feel better.

They tell me it's time for their lunch break and I can come back in half an hour for the biopsy. When I leave, I burst into tears again and call my best friend. She doesn't answer, but I know that she knows where I am today and I know that the simple act of me calling in the middle of the day will worry her.

My car doesn't have a parking ticket—a minor miracle. I'll take it.

The biopsy isn't that bad. The worst part is keeping my arm over head, which causes it to both go numb and cramp at the same time. I make a lame joke about it and for the first time, the doctor cracks a smile.

"Your new favorite position!" he says. Did he just make a sex joke? Maybe I like him a little bit after all.

They do three biopsies: one of the large mass that brought me in, one in my armpit, and one closer to my nipple. Each time he walks me through the process as if I haven't heard him say it before.

Now I'm going to clean the area. Now I'm going to numb it. Now you'll feel a cold gel. Now I'll numb a little deeper. The machine sounds like a staple gun. He counts one two three…but he never does it at three, which makes me wonder why he bothers counting at all. I make the mistake of looking. I only feel one of them and he gives me more to numb it.

He leaves. "How long have you been doing this?" I ask the technician. Eleven years. And him? He's the chief, she says. Oh.

"Do you have Tylenol at home?"

No, why? Am I going to be in pain?

"Well, yeah. You had three biopsies."

Okay.

They tell me they'll call as soon as they get the results back. Not to shower for a day and not to lift or move anything for two or three. That I should bring someone with me next time.

Okay.

After the biopsies, I have to get more x-rays. This time I have a different technician and I'm glad because I don't know that I can handle seeing my old friend the third generation San Franciscan again.

Exactly three and a half hours, four bandaids, $134, and—likely—a cancer diagnosis later, I get to go.

First I call Kim and then I call Paula. My other best friend is at a 10-day meditation retreat so I text her boyfriend to ask when she'll be available to talk. I try to sound casual, but he's a smart guy.

I'm supposed to go to a bachelorette party this weekend. I debate about whether or not to tell the bride. Her mom died of cancer. So a wedding is not just a celebration but also a sharp reminder of someone who is supposed to be there but isn't.

I decide that in the event I can't go, it would be better for her to have a few days to process it than to spring it on her right before it's time to party. She can't stop saying "fuck." After a few minutes, she starts to cry and tells me she has to go and she'll call me later.

It's okay, I'd cry too.

I start making a mental list of all of the people I'm going to have to call but I don't know how many more of these I can do. Paula and Kim come over for dinner. Paula brings cake and Kim a nice bottle of rose and a roasted chicken. And flowers. I admire this in a friend: the ability to turn anything into a celebration. It's a good quality.

Mostly it's like any other night. I can tell they've talked though. Brave faces never look that brave. I tell them how anxious I am about having to call so many people—I don't know why this is my biggest concern, but it is. Paula suggests a phone tree. This seems like cruel and unusual punishment.

Tuesday

I wake up sore and surprised, glad for the Tylenol. Mostly I feel fine. I definitely don't feel sick. Occasionally I burst into tears. I buy food I don't want to eat. Mostly I'm waiting.

Tick tick tick tick. A ticking fucking time bomb.

I go to work because what else can I do? I make plans that I might not want to keep. I skip dinner.

Wednesday

I'm even more sore, but maybe it's just in my mind. I need to do laundry but I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to lift anything still.

Lis and I have brunch. She brings flowers too. The phone rings and I think it's my doctor but it's just a delivery guy.

I go to meetings. We host an event. Someone I barely know says, "Hey, so-and-so told me…I just want you to know…"

Thoughts and prayers. Thoughts and prayers.

Thursday

One of my bruises is getting larger and I use it as pretext to call. I get passed around a few times. My results are in but they're not sure who is supposed to give them to me. The chief radiologist is out for the day.

The doorbell rings. More flowers.

The doctor calls. Finally. All three biopsies confirm that I have breast cancer. It's grade three—this refers to how abnormal the cells are. The stage refers to how far it has spread. He doesn't have a clear answer for me; at the very least it has locally spread to my lymph nodes.

I can't tell you how many times someone asks how are you in casual conversation in a week.

Okay.

Two weeks ago I wrote about how to find meaningful work. I ended with this: "Most importantly, decide that you're going to be okay no matter what and you will be."

Trying to be okay.

This story originally appeared on Medium. Stay tuned for updates from Lindsay Jean Thomson on Tonic.