I do not have breast cancer. I did find a lump in my right breast about six weeks ago. This is the story of my adventure with mammograms, ultrasounds, doctors, clinics and biopsies in a foreign country, which I navigated mostly by myself. Something which would never have been the case if I were at home. Strap on your seat-belts, here we go, this is a long ride…..
I had an appointment with my phenomenal local doctor, Sorcha Dunne, who works at the nearby clinic. The clinic is just a mile from my cabin. I needed to go over blood work related to my thyroid condition. I had her check out the lump I found under my right underarm. Because the lump was painful and mushy, she was reassuring and said: “I’d like to put you on a high dose of anti-inflammatory medication for a week and then check this lump out again, in ten days. If it’s still there, then we’ll go nuclear.” So, I got on Ibuprofen 400 mcg three times a day.
I then had a freak-out, crying in the car, praying and I think I went swimming at the pool I just recently joined. I was torn about telling my husband, because I didn’t want to worry him unnecessarily. This lasted for one day. I realized that if he had something like this, even if it turned out to not be serious, I would want to be told. This is a complex issue in most families. Who do you tell, when do you tell, how do you tell? It’s more complicated for me right now because I’m on a retreat NOT talking to all my people and family as I normally would. It’s also expensive to communicate with folks in the states from here and there’s the time difference as well.
So, I called my most magnificent husband. I cried and he agreed that it was right of me to call him. He then said he would do anything I needed and over the week I was on the Ibuprofen I talked to him at all hours of his day and mine. We strategized, he listened to me and supported me in all the ways I needed. We agreed that we would tell family after I had my follow-up visit, in case there was no more to the story, I didn’t feel like causing an uproar of fear in those I love.
I have escorted two dear friends across death’s door from breast cancer. I have two friends who are in remission/recovering from breast cancer, minus their breasts and after intense medical engagements. I have one friend still in a very long battle with lymphatic cancer. I have lost two other friends in the last year from cancer as well, not breast cancer though. In my community I am often the person you call when you are sick or dying because I was the Chair of our Hevra Kadisha (Sacred Society/Burial Society). You can read all about that here: Life and Death Matters
Death, medical challenges, and family complexity around all of this are all very familiar to me. I am often the person who is the medical advocate for my friends or others when they are navigating illness. I know this landscape from the helper side, not from the patient side. Ummmm, they’re really different! It’s a whole other world when you are the one in the scary seat.
A moment to talk about being an ALPHA female. In almost every situation I will be the alpha, I will take charge if taking charge needs to happen. This is a huge asset for the folks I help. It’s not always an asset though and I have to work very hard to not be the loudest, biggest, most intense person in any room. I pretty much have to crank the volume down on who I am all the time. The volume knob on the Nicole Being is permanently worn on the turn down side. Most folks experience me as taking up a lot of space, physically, verbally, and spiritually. This is me with my volume turned DOWN really hard.
It’s actually exhausting to always have to crank myself down, down, down. Part of why I am here away from most human contact is because the trees and the river and the birds and the angels have NO problem with my volume and I feel so safe and free with them. If you could see my energetic being it would be the size of a small sea. I’m not kidding. And everyone wants a wild body of water in their living room taking up space, on the sofa, right?
So, what happens for me when I have to divert my attention from keeping my volume turned down to be in HYPER-FUNCTION mode is that I get less good at being smaller, and I also forget things and make mistakes.
Well, I still had a lump on Monday, February 29th, Leap not for Joy!
So, then Sorcha referred me to the Mater Private Hospital in Dublin for a triple assessment; Mammograms, Ultasounds and Biopsies. This is “going nuclear,” which I thought was a metaphor, but actually it is called nuclear medicine. I’m not sure if she meant it metaphorically or not, but that’s how I heard it and that’s how I experienced it is as well.
Remember I’m in Ireland. I was told it would be two or three weeks before I could be seen for this consultation. Well, that didn’t work for me or my husband. I’d already been in a state of limbo and who knew how long that lump had been in my boob before I noticed it. One of my friends had such a fast growing breast cancer that a few weeks made a difference and because she was extremely on top of her situation, with two small children, she immediately had surgery and is alive and well today. Three weeks felt like an eternity to me. My husband asked me to talk with one of my sisters by love (name will not be given), who is also one of my doctors back in the states.
I’d been hesitant to do so because she’s a busy single-mom who just brought her mother home with metastasized pancreatic cancer and is taking care of her and her step father in her tiny home following her own painful divorce. But, Kevin insisted that she needed to be brought into the loop, so I called her and woke her up at 11 pm her time, 6 am my time. We talked for an hour and she said she wanted me to at least see if I could get an ultrasound sooner. She urged me to be pushy and she reassured me that based on my description it was probably not breast cancer, but let’s not wait to find that out.
So, as soon as the local clinic opened I called and said I couldn’t wait three weeks to get this consultation and asked if I could get part of it done sooner locally. Dublin is three hours and a whole world away from me here. Within an hour or so, Mary, the receptionist, called me back and said she had secured the appointment for me for the following day at 2:30 pm. PERFECT! I felt a little bit like an “ugly American” but Mary and Sorcha both reassured me. If I did have cancer, I’d have to be packing up and heading home for surgery, my situation was just not simple. Somehow between the angels, the extraordinary efforts of these magnificent local folks, some serious Mazel/Luck and the fact that I would be paying privately, I got into the special hospital in Dublin very quickly.
So, I threw some clothes into a bag, got all my paperwork together and asked one of the nuns to give me a ride to the train station in two hours. I got on the 1:00 pm train to Dublin. While on the platform waiting, I spoke with the Mater Private and asked for the nearest hotel. The receptionist said to try the Maldron Parnell Square and to mention I should get the special rate for their patients. I called them and asked to book a room for two nights. They only had one room available for that night, but I figured I might get lucky once I got there and anyway, I could always switch hotels if I had to.
So, on the train I went. I brought my knitting and my iPad with several novels on it. I spent time on my phone with my travel insurance AIG, and they were pretty wonderful. They assigned me a real person who called me every day and helped me get things figured out. I definitely was in hyper-function mode, which is what had to be done. No room for feelings.
I do need to share that when I first found the lump I did share that information with my Carmelite sisters and brothers here at my Hermitage. They were AMAZING. One of the nuns had a breast cancer scare which turned out to not be cancer. She came over and reassured me. The others also all put me in their prayers and were completely caring and present for me. Lots of hugs and kindness. So, even though I wasn’t with my normal crew of folks I was surrounded by their love. Additionally, my foot reflexologist neighbor, Rachel Dooney, and my chiropractor Sheila O’Brien were very available. Sheila, had also gone through this breast lump territory and procedures and not had breast cancer. So, all of these folks were there for me and praying for me and sending me love and support.
Once I got to Dublin, I took a taxi to the hotel. The staff was completely multicultural, Indian, Brazilian, Spanish, Moldovan, Basque to name just a few. I loved all the accents and languages and every person there was generous, kind and solicitous of me. They printed out my medical documents, release forms for me and even faxed them for me, free of cost. They just went out of their way to be helpful.
I got to speak Spanish and my tiny drop of Russian also, which was fun and distracting, two things that are helpful when you are freaking out about possibly having cancer. I ate at the hotel for dinner and went to see Big Maggie (a play I’d been hearing about on the radio and which has been sold out for months). I figured I’m in the country of the Bards and I am going to try to distract myself and have some fun. I booked my ticket while on the train into Dublin and got a pretty good seat about five rows from the stage a little to the left of center. The show was very intense and powerful and I am sooooooo glad I saw it. The theater, the Gaiety, is very old and beautiful with red velvet everywhere and sculpted ivory-colored angels and flowers all over the place as well as having a huge crystal chandelier. the acting was stunning and excellent and inspiring.
After the show I returned to the hotel and attempted to sleep. Guess how that went? So, reading, phone calls to my husband, solitaire and several episodes of 3rd Rock from the Sun were watched instead. I had two hot, hot baths as well. Perhaps I got three hours of sleep (which is my average on a bad night). Around five a.m. I got up and prayed the morning service. This takes me between two to three hours. I read, chant or sing the prayers in Hebrew, then in English. I cry through most of them, so that means it just takes me a while. My tears were not just unique to this intense and fraught time.
I cannot get through three or more words of any prayers without tears of joy, gratitude, and awe. Sometimes sadness too, but that’s not really what the tears are about, they still slow me down time-wise. Perhaps, they swim their way to heaven along the river of the water falling from my eyes. I have stopped judging this. This phenomenon has been constant for me since I came to Ireland. It was pretty frequent before I came on retreat, but there is no one to judge me, wonder if I am okay, or otherwise interrupt my process here, so I have gotten to deepen in all my spiritual practices, which is exactly why I am here!
I am reminded of the story my Rabbi Naomi Steinberg tells about Reb Zusya. Reb Zusya is a simple poor fellow. There are many stories about him and I may not have this one exactly right. The one I am thinking about is a story where someone is commenting to the Rabbi about how Reb Zusya can never get more than two or three words into a prayer before he faints or, the less kind, assume he has fallen asleep. When asked about this Reb Zusya tries to explain that just saying “Baruch Ha-Shem” Blessed is the Name, makes him see the throne of Glory and it causes him to start contemplating the fountain of blessings flowing from the Divine. This throws him into a profound state of awe and trembling and he is overcome. Since almost all of the prayers start this way he can never get past those first few words, and in fact he faints trying to explain this. I think it is the Rabbi in the story who chastises and informs the others about the holiness of Reb Zusya and his devotion and engagement with Holiness.
I’m no Reb Zusya, but I do experience tremendous energy, angels and wonder. This happens for me whenever I pray in Hebrew or chant or am engaged in Holy prayer or meditation with others in any language or religion. If the heart is present, then I feel that in all my cells.
It was good to pray, in my hotel room in Dublin, it’s always good for me to pray. It just takes me a long time and I get wet.
So, after praying I went downstairs for breakfast and headed into town to get my underarms and legs sugar-waxed. I had asked the nurse about if I should shave and she said yes, so I treated myself to that. You may not think a sugar wax hair removal is a treat, but it doesn’t involve me taking a razor to my skin and lasts longer and reminds me of the Hammam Pacha (something I hope to write about soon). I had time for lunch and found a delicious Nepalese restaurant called Diwali. It was so quiet, with a large screen full of images of nature playing, soft raga music, quiet diners and large fish tanks full of beautiful fish; it was a sanctuary in the midst of busy loud, thronging Dublin. The food was EXCELLENT!
The woman Lindsay, who did my waxing, was great. Her business is called The Sugarist. She is from Seattle and we had a great set of conversations full of feminism, food, politics and lots of other great chatter. She was excellent. Alas, finally it was time to head to the hospital, so I hailed a taxi and dropped my big bog boots and large jacket off at the reception desk and got back in my taxi. Once at the Mater Private Hospital I was treated with tremendous kindness and graciousness. There were about seven other women,with their friends or spouses in the breast treatment area. I was the only person by herself, but I know lots of folks were praying for me and thinking about me.
I didn’t have to wait too long before I was called in for the first set of Mammograms. I’m not going to describe those. If you’re a woman over 40 you should know what I’m talking about. If you’re not a woman, this is one of the things you can be very grateful you do not have to go through. So, they took lots and lots of shots of my right breast and several of my left. The technicians were funny, kind and gentle–even if the machines are the exact opposite of that.
Then I went back out into the small waiting area and after another not too long wait I was ushered into the ultrasound room. The doctor Michelle McNicholas was a redhead and I love redheads! She and I also share a name, since Nicole is in her last name. She gooped up my breasts and started looking around. She didn’t seem too concerned and said so, she found a second large lump on my left breast which I was unaware of. This is when you start to really get afraid, if you’re me, even if the doctor is saying reassuring things. She said she wanted another set of mammograms for the left side, since we hadn’t done as many on that side and she wanted to see a certain view. So, back to the Mammogram Monster Machines I went. More mushing and smashing and then back into the ultrasound room. Michelle was very reassuring and said she really didn’t think I had anything to worry about. The tissue looked like and was behaving like “fat necrotic” tissue.
She and I agreed that we still should do a biopsy. I was there, I was lumpy, I wanted to be certain that I didn’t have breast cancer. So, I was then numbed up on my left breast and she did two fine-needle biopsies. I didn’t feel these, at the time, but they have scary noisy loud clicks which the doctor warned me about. Then I got dressed and went back to the waiting area. There was one more doctor to see.
I really loved the process of this place. It was multi-pronged with procedures and tests but also with a follow-up conversation and final exam with a second doctor. I just felt completely covered, seen and cared for and all of it was going on in one small area of a larger hospital. So, the nurse for Professor Gory (the name of my last doctor, really!), came searching for me. She tried to pronounce my last name, and I told her, never mind, just say Frank and don’t bother with the Barchilon. She said Dr. Gorey, when looking at my chart, commented that I must be French. So, as I walked into his room, I greeted him in French.
The whole exam went on in French, much to my delight, and his. There was a little English for his nurse too. It was somehow so comforting and friendly to be laughing and chatting in French. His French was excellent. So, he did a final exam on my breasts with his hands and then sat me down and said. “I’m almost certain you have absolutely nothing to worry about.” We will get back to you on Monday with the Biopsy results, but my advice is that you have a mammogram in two years and that you ONLY examine your breasts once a month. I know you’ll probably want to do it more frequently, but don’t make yourself crazy.” We shook hands and I went to pay the bill, feeling fairly relieved in general.
So, for all of this care, which I cannot even imagine the cost of in the U.S. I paid 1,100 Euros total for Mammograms, Ultrasound, Biopsies, Doctors, technicians, local anesthetic, etc….I think the cost for all of that would be ten times or more for the procedures and consultations. I wasn’t happy to shell out that money, but it will hopefully be reimbursed to me by my travel insurance. I’m sure that reimbursement and paperwork process will be much longer than the medical one!
I walked back to my hotel, which was about ten blocks from the hospital. I took 1000 mg of Paracetamol (like Tylenol) and went for a nap in my room, or an attempt at a nap. I spoke with my brother and his partner and also with my husband and then went out for a really fancy dinner at a place recommended to me by the front desk staff. It was called Chameleon. I asked the Brazilian at the front desk where I could find good spicy food within walking distance. This place was an Indonesian fusion type place that they had heard was very good. I checked it out on my iPhone and walked to it, it was about a twenty-minute walk. I had a phenomenal meal there and will definitely eat there when I’m in Dublin again.
Now it’s all about the waiting for the test results and the anxiety around that. I’ll keep this part fairly brief, although my wait for the results was not brief. On the Monday, five days after my biopsies, I got a call saying they wouldn’t have my results until Wednesday. I was reassured this did not mean anything bad, but there was no way for me to not feel anxious. More crying, phone calls with my husband, strategizing about leaving my retreat early if I needed to and walks and prayers. On the said Wednesday, I got a call saying they needed to do a second stain and that the results of that wouldn’t be in until the following Monday.
I sort of blanked out, at this point, on the phone with the nurse, panic on my part. My husband stayed calm when I told him and said perhaps they’d made a mistake or ??? I asked the insurance medical helper person to tell me what getting a second stain meant and they gave me a very cogent response that was reassuring and said that double-checking by doing a second stain of my tissues was a very good protocol. I still felt totally freaked-out, but was trying to stay positive.
Come Monday, a full twelve hellish days, after the biopsies, I called the hospital first thing in the morning. I was told they couldn’t tell me the results and that the report was forwarded always to my general/referring doctor. This was different from previously, since Louise, the nurse at Mater Private, had called me with information all the other times. Fear set in. I called my doctor’s office and Mary said they didn’t have anything yet. A few hours later I got a call from Louise telling me that there was NO CANCER! She said they’d just gone over the results and had a meeting, their protocol, and she called me as soon as it was finished. I must have gotten someone on the phone the first time who was either new or not aware of the situation. You can imagine my joy and relief.
So, that’s the end of this saga! My youngest son is here visiting right now. We’re enjoying the most beautiful sunny weather, walks, my cooking, and we’ll head to Dublin for a show and dinner at Chameleon before he flies home. I’m a very lucky and grateful woman!!!!
Ethan laying in the non-cancerous lumpy, soft, mushy grassy knolls on the walk to one of the Holy Wells near my cabin. Sun, Son and Supreme Joy and Beauty!