My Dance With Breast Cancer

Making peace with my deepest fear.

Denise Vitola

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I have been terrified of cancer my whole life. I’m not sure how or when this fear originated; it doesn’t run in my family and I never knew anyone who died from it. I just knew — probably from books and movies — that cancer is insidious. It’s sneaky. It lurks. It waits. Often by the time you know you have it, it’s too late.

This fear became so ingrained in me that it seemed inevitable that I would one day be faced with it. As I became older I was convinced that every ache, every cough, every unexplained bruise could possibly be the Big C. Of course it wasn’t.

Until one day it was.

I was in the bathroom, naked, about to hop into the shower. I raised my arms to put my hair up and glanced into the mirror. Wait, what the hell was that? There was a weird depression in the skin on my right breast. I put my arms down and it disappeared. I raised them and it reappeared. My fingers anxiously flew to the spot, looking for a lump, finding one.

But it couldn’t be, could it? I had just had a clean mammogram nine months ago! Although they had sent me back for more pictures because there was an area of concern. I had called my boyfriend from the car, white-faced, terrified, but trying to play it cool because we had just started dating. The poor guy didn’t really know what to say, but he managed some reassuring words. Finally the verdict came in: you’re all good, just dense tissue. They gave me a flyer about dense breasts and sent me on my way.

Now I lay on my bed, fingering the lump obsessively, trying not to panic. It was probably just a cyst. I had developed a cyst several years before, and this lump kind of felt like that one. I took a deep breath, let it out. That’s probably all it was. I had an appointment with my regular doctor later that week for a nagging cough, I would just bring up the lump then.

Things happened very quickly after that, and by turns excruciatingly slowly. I raised my arms to show my doctor the weird depression. She looked at me sharply. “How long have you had this?” I told her I’d noticed it less than a week before. “That’s a classic sign of breast cancer,” she said. “I wish I could take a picture of it to show my patients what to look for.” My ears started…

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Denise Vitola

Writer, reader, lifelong rebel. Learning things the hard way since 1963.