CANCER, OF COURSE, happens to other people. Which is why in June of 1972, when I discovered a small lump in my left breast, I went almost immediately to the surgical clinic of De-Witt Army Hospital to have it checked. Since cancer could not happen to me I had the lump checked because that is the right thing to do.
I attach great importance to doing the right thing. I am intelligent, reasonable, and I cooperate with the system. This has always earned me approval and praise, high grades, and the friendship of my peers, other intelligent people willing and able to indulge my appetite for conversation. Foolish people, irrational people I do not like. Their discourse affronts me; I feel that by merely listening to them I somehow become irrational, unintelligent.
At the clinic Doctor Frist examined both breasts carefully. He called in Doctor Second, who did likewise. Then the two of them, out of their combined 20 (30? 40?) years of training and experience, told me, "Yes, there is a lump in your left breast." I was told to return in a month.
The lump was still there, so arrangements were made for me to enter the hospital for a biopsy. Doctor First explained, "I'm quite sure this is just a little cyst, quite common in large breasts, but a biopsy will confirm this opinion."
That evening I told lmy husband about the arrangements. I mentioned the release form I'd been told I must sign, which would give my permission for a radical mastectomy to be performed immediately if the lump proved malignant.
He said, "Radical mastectomy? You mean...?" and he lmade a slicing gesture across his chest. I shrieked at him, "Of course, what the hell do you think. I mean? We're talking about cancer!" I was sorry for my outburst. I said, "Sorry. There's really only the slighest chance, you know." We didn't talk about it again. "We Take No Chances"
SURGERY WAS scheduled for Monday, July 31, and I entered the hospital on Sunday. I brought a large pad of yellow foolscap to receive any notes or inspirations I might have about the book I was writing (my first.) I was proud of being a writer. I'd spent part of my publisher's advance on an electric typewriter. I could barely stand to leave my typewriter at home, but sensible patients don't bring typewriters to the hospital.
The anesthesiologist came by in the afternoon to explain the procedures she would be using. She said, "The lump is in the left breast?" "Yes," She marked a big "L" in red on my chart. "Why is that 'L' necessary?" I asked. "The surgeon couldn't possibly get mixed up, could he?" I thought her reply, "We take no chances," was curious.
Doctor First had scheduled my surgery for 10:30 and said he would phone my husband when it was over. If he just performed a biopsy, "which is 99 percent likely," he said, he'd be through in less than an hour. "Otherwise it will take three to four hours," Otherwise.
But it was nearly noon before they came to take me to surgery, so I phoned my husband's office to say that since I was going in later than expected, he was not to be alarmed if he didn't hear from the doctor before 1:30 or 2. 1 delivered this message very calmly to his secretary, and then was wheeled away.
I regained consciousness about 5 p.m., the entire left side of my torso burning, my left arm bound tightly to my side. Before I could grasp the implications of my condition, my husband was striding toward me, his uniform ridiculously covered by a hospital gown. I was completely enfolded in his arms by the time I realized my left vreast had been amputated.
My recovery was quick. As intelligent people do, I'd kept myself in good health, and my body was healing well from its grievous insult. Within three days I was out of the semi-private room and into the ward, feeding myself and getting back and forth frim my bed to the toilet unaided.
Family and friends visited. I was cheerful land rational. I told one and all how well I was doing, how the lymph nodes removed from my left armpit had shown no abnormalities, a good indication that the carncer had not spread.
A physical therapist showed me exercises to keep my left arm from stiffening and swelling. Other patients applauded my snappy patter as I worked out with the rope the therapist provided. I told them I was practicing to floor Muhammad Ali with my left hook.
Other women came in for biopsies. I wondered what they thought when they looked at me. One started to weep just before she was taken to surgery. I talked to her in positive terms, telling her there was nothing to fear. It was the good and sensible thing to do. She was back on the ward in less than an hour. Her lump had proved benign. "I Really Hated It"
AS I GOT better I fell in love with my surgeon, Doctor First. He was in his early 30s and about to be released form the Army. His wife had been away for a month on a teaching assignment. I found him very attractive as he talked about how much he'd missed her, and how happy he was that she'd soon be back. She was a dancer, he told me. I felt sure she must have a beautiful body.
On the day of my discharge he came to remove the last few stitches form my 14-inch incision, which ran vertically from near my lowest leat rib to just beneath my collarbone and then turned outward, ending on my left arm just below the shoulder. He was in khakis, not wearing his doctor's coat. Unaccompanied by the usual entourage of aides and nurses, he pulled the curtain around my bed and went to work. "I just hated to do this to you. But there was no choice, no choice at all. I really hated it." I was sympatheic. I could certainly see his side of it.
After he left I looked in the mirror of my vanity case. My hair needed shampooing and I had no makeup on. I looked every bit of my 43 years. It struck me that I was no longer a young woman. I was middle-aged, and mutilated. I was middle-aged, and mutilated. I put on my robe, went over to a window where no one could see my face, and began to cry.
Then a voice behind me, very tentative and respectful: "Mrs. Ebbert?" It was Doctor First, holding out a slip of paper. "I'll be leaving the hospital and getting out of the Army tomorrow. This is my father's home address. If you'd ever like to get in touch with me, mail sent here will always be forwarded to me." I thought it was a helluva nice thing for him to do.
Back home, I practiced my exercises and prepared for a modified version of the vacation my husband and I had planned earlier. The doctors said I was healing well, and the vacation was a good idea.
My husband drove and I tried to rest beside him, my left shoulder and arm propped on pillows. The wound hurt almost continually. Each morning I would wake up in comfort, but by noon I'd be bitchy with pain and would nap after lunch. then I could hold on until dinner, when liberal doses of aspirin and manhattans would get me through until it was time to escape again into sleep.
Twice the pain was so bad my husband drove me to hospitals near our trip route for examinations. Every doctor who saw me said I was healing well. One doctor pronounced my would "beautiful."
If finally dawned on me that the pain was in my heart, and the wound was just a handy place for it to show up. I figured that out all by myself and was astonished that no doctor had seen fit to explain it to me. I became angry with all my doctors. I indicted them on three counts: they didn't think I needed any explanations; they were male; they were whole. The prosecution rested.
I also indicted my husband. He was male and whold. Worse, he was very good to me, gave ample testimony that he found me as attractive as ever, and his love outdistanced my rage. My severest accusation was that he gave me no reason to be angry with him. Sloppy Thinking
VACATION OVER, I went for radiation therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Five mornings a week for four weeks I was bused to the hopital and my "site" irradiated with cobalt. The idea was that radiation would kill any lurking cancer cells that might have escaped from the lump into the lymph nodes just under my breastbone.
I would lie down on a table, the huge machine focused on the site. The radiation technician would step outside, close the massive door behind her and switch on the machine. All alone I would receive the deadly rays for a specified number of seconds while the technician watched through windows which I supposed to be radiation-proof. I thought what fulfilling work it must be, to sunburn bad nasty cancer cells to death. I thought of the technician and the machine as a team and made up a cheer for them: Two-four-six-eight, Whom do we irradiate?
I carried my medical record with me each day to Walter Reed. One day I read my Patient History. Among other things, it said that "the patient's left nipple was grossly unremarkable." I felt libeled. That seemed a shabby way to describe my Late Lamented. Besides, juxtaposing "grossly" and "unremarkable" was sloppy thinking and bad writing, both of which I detest.
I resumed writing while still on the radiation schedule. I would write in longhand on the yellow pad while riding the bus, then rewrite on the typewriter when I got home. It was hard to keep my mind on my work; it seemed to be elsewhere. I spent all of one bus ride trying to compose appropriate lyrics to the tune of "Melancholy Baby," but couldn't get past "Come to me, my radically mastected baby, cuddle up and don't feel flat".
Even so, I made some progress on the book and took to whistling "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Then one day I saw a man whose brain tumor was being irradiated.
At the end of our weeks my bony chest was ferociously sunburned and I thought of myself as a crispy crittur.
At the end of four weeks my bony chest was ferociously sunburned and I thought of myself as a crispy crittur.
On Nov. 15, my 44th birthday, I was given a prosthesis. My breast form weighs, feels and flows just as a natural breast does. However, it is not modifiable for lactation and it is not erogenous.
The Army keeps a tumor registry. Every other year I receive from its central offices a questionnaire. I never have anything interesting to report. I've gone faithfully for my check-ups, my mammograms, my bone-scan X-rays, my blood tests. It's the intelligent thing to do. I even examine my right breast regularly and thoroughly. I am the perfect patient.
But sometimes the questionnaire irritates me, especially the question: "Do you have any limitations or probaems connected with your tumor removal?" On the most recent questionnaire I typed in this answer: "My career in the Folies Rergere has been severely compromised by the absence of one breast. Otherwise I'm in fine shape, considering the shape I'm in."
Recently I heard about a woman I knew a long time ago. On the fifth anniversary of her radical mastectomy a lump was found in her remaining breast, which was subsequently removed. This news has depressed me, even though the sixth anniversary of my own surgery has come and gone. I think, "What would I do? Would I move as fast the next time to have the lump examined, the biopsy performed?"
But of course I know the answer. I have thought it out very carefully and I understand that while having a radical mastectomy is horrible, there is at least one thing more horrible, and that is not to have it if you need it.
So I know what I would do. I am, after all, an intelligent woman.