In March of 1973, Los Altos was experiencing the explosion of springtime. Hillsides were awash in emerald green. Fruit trees were laden with pink and white popcorn-esque blossoms and the hint of ensuing warm weather brought excitement to city dwellers, but not my mother.
Lassie Pearce Madden was an intuitive woman. She always sensed the trouble her children were about to get into – even before they thought of it. She also knew her body. While women of her generation occasionally went for annual physicals, my mother never missed a beat.
“Doctor” my mom implored. “I know there is something wrong with me.”
Swaying side to side on the examining table, fidgeting with the paper coverlet draped over her body, she said, “I’ve heard of something called a mammogram. I think I should have one.”
“Lassie, you don’t need one,” the doctor replied. “I don’t feel anything.”
“This is my body,” she demanded. “I want one!”
The appointment was scheduled and she experienced this innovative procedure which made it’s modern debut in 1969, but wasn’t commonly practiced until 1976. Within a half hour, her fears were confirmed. Instead of the typical lump, there was a thin sheet of cancer that spread across her entire chest. A week later, a radical mastectomy was performed. In the early 1970’s, breast cancer was a death sentence, but because of early detection, she survived.
Ten years ago I discovered a lump under my left arm. At first I ignored it, but then remembered my mothers resolve. I made my appointment and was told it was just a fatty deposit.
“Well, if it’s just fat, can we shift it someplace else on my body where it might fill me out,” I jokingly remark, trying to mask my fear.
“Jackie, don’t worry,” my doctor again replied. “If it’s not gone in a month, call me.”
Life got busy and two months later, it was still there. I made the call and insisted it be removed. Once again, the breast surgeon told me “it was nothing to worry about,” but she would honor my request.
Remembering my mother’s plight, I was resolute. The procedure was done a Stanford Hospital and two weeks later I received the phone call I dreaded.
“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 and it’s imperative we become advocates for our own health.
The human body is a miraculous instrument and signals when something is not right. We all must learn to sit up and take notice of any warning signs. Don’t be lax and think it will just go away. Take charge and protect the one life you have.