In March of 1973, Los Altos was experiencing the explosion of springtime. Hillsides were awash in emerald green and fruit trees were laden with pink and white popcorn-esque blossoms. The hint of ensuing warm weather brought excitement to city dwellers and one could not help but feel re-born. All except my mother.
Lassie Pearce Madden was an intuitive woman. So perceptive that I often thought she had psychic powers for she seemed to be able to sense the trouble her children were about to get into – even before they thought of doing it. She also knew her body. While women of her generation occasionally went for annual physicals, my mother never missed a beat.
Knowing something wasn’t quite right, she went early for her pap smear, and implored. “Doctor, I know there is something wrong with me.”
Swaying side-to-side like a metronome on the examining table, her norm when scared or frightened, my mother fidgeted with the paper coverlet draped over her body, anxious cheeks now flushed a deep crimson.
“Lassie,” the kindly man began. “There is nothing wrong. You’re just fine.”
But instinctively knowing otherwise, she continued to plead, “I’ve heard of something called a mammogram. I think I should have one.”
Mammograms had been around since the early 1900’s, but it wasn’t until 1969 when the first x-ray units were made available to create breast imaging. By 1976, it was becoming a common practice and today, being tested is right up there with having your teeth cleaned on a regular basis.
“Lassie, you don’t need one,” the doctor replied. “I don’t feel anything.”
Becoming defiant, she demanded, “This is my body, and I want one!”
The appointment was scheduled for later that summer. Within a half hour of her exam, her fears were confirmed. Instead of the typical lump, there was a thin sheet of collected abnormal cells that spread across her entire chest. Horrified, the doctor scheduled the surgery a week later, and a radical mastectomy was performed. In the early 1970’s, cancer, be it breast or otherwise, was a death sentence, but because of early detection, my mom survived.
Fast forward twenty-six years, and I found myself in the same terrifying predicament when I discovered a lump under my left arm. At first, I ignored it because life was rotating at turbo speed. My children were teenagers, and I could sense restlessness in their father and his unhappiness with home life, but then remembered my mothers resolve. Making my appointment, I was met with a casual, “Oh, it’s most likely just a fatty deposit.”
Unlike my mom, instead of fidgeting and ripping apart the paper gown, my questionable sense of humor overtook me.
“Well, if it’s just fat, can we shift it someplace else on my body where it might fill me out.”
“Jackie, don’t worry,” my doctor again replied. “If it’s not gone in a month, call me.”
But two months later, it was still there. Despite the cyclone I was living in, I realized for once my life needed to come first. I made the call and insisted it be removed, but was again told it was nothing to worry about. After all, it was just a lump near breast tissue, not on the breast.
Remembering my mother’s plight, I became resolute, and a week later a lumpectomy was performed at Stanford Hospital, in Palo Alto, CA.
“Jackie, go home and don’t worry,” the surgeon began. “This was all just a routine procedure. We’ll have the results in a week or two.”
Three weeks passed as I tried to live life as normal. Then, the call came.
“Jackie,” the doctor nervously began. “We were wrong. Fortunately, the tumor is benign, but this form of lesion left untreated becomes cancerous.” Taking a deep breath, she continued, “We got it just in time.”
As my shaking hands hung up the phone, two things became crystal clear. Doctors are human and make mistakes. Despite the fact were often made to feel we’re hypochondriacs, it’s imperative we become advocates for our health. We know our bodies, or should begin to, and we know when something isn’t right. The human form is a miraculous instrument and signals when something is amiss, but it can’t do it’s magic if we don’t pay attention.
For many years, I wanted to put my head in the sand when I felt things were amiss. Let’s face it, who likes someone poking and prodding the private sectors of our physical form, but what I discovered is if we don’t sit up and take notice when the warning signals hit, it could very possibly be too late.
We only get one chance in this lifetime. Being lax and thinking it will all go away is just plain criminal. Instead, I say we should take charge, stand up and be counted. Get in that doctors face and make demands. A healthy life is not the responsibility of those who love us. It’s ours!
Have you ever felt like something was wrong with your health and were afraid to have it checked out?