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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Bogeyman Hiding in the Shower

Like many men, I've spent much of my adult life simultaneously fascinated by breasts, and relieved beyond measure that I don't have them.

Just hearing horror stories about routine mammograms, and thinking about the growing list of friends who have struggled, and sometimes lost the battle, with breast cancer, is enough to make me thank G-d every morning for making me a man.

Oh sure, on some level I know as well as anyone that there's a little footnote on breast cancer brochures and websites that mentions that men can get it too. But since the overwhelming majority of breast cancer cases you hear/read about are women... this particular scourge is largely thought of as a 'women's cancer', like its ovarian and uterine cousins.

Most men I know (myself included) support breast cancer fund raisers for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Because someone they know has had breast cancer
  • Because it is considered trendy/enlightened in most circles for a man to support such a 'women's issue'
  • Because a spouse or girlfriend is actively supporting it (i.e. earning 'brownie points')
  • Because not only is the little pink ribbon on your shirt a total chick magnet, but it also allows a guy to shamelessly slip the word breast into a conversation (often several times!), he is having with a new female conquest without getting slapped.

Well, I'm here to tell you that there is another reason for a man to support Breast Cancer research: To paraphrase an old saying, it's all fun and games until you feel a lump in the shower.

While taking a shower recently, I was soaping up my pits as I usually do... but because the bar of soap was getting a tad thin (and I was too lazy to get out of the nice warm shower to get a fresh one), I had to take a little extra care to get the whole area nice and sudsy.

That's when I noticed a lump about halfway between my armpit and 'pec'. On a woman this would be that lovely spot that swells just beyond the right border of a bikini top's fabric.

At first I thought the little scrap of soap I'd been trying to use must have doubled up on me, and that was what my fingers had felt. But a second pass put paid to that theory. There was something there, all right... and it was about the size of a cocktail olive.

Right there in the shower I suddenly understood the barely contained terror that informed women live with every day of their adult lives. Standing there with the water streaming unfelt over my numb body, I tried to muster a list of all the information I possessed about what might be dancing there under my fingers. And a short list it was.

Some of you may not know this, but it turns out I didn't go to medical school. So I got out of the shower, dried off, and then spent several hours surfing the health and medical web sites finding out just how little I really knew about what it might mean to find a cocktail olive in one's armpit.

After nearly three hours of sitting on my little secret and scaring myself spitless with what I was finding on the web, I called up a buddy of mine who actually did go to medical school (and who, from what I had heard, is a damn fine surgeon).

He listened intently to what I described, asked a few professional questions, and told me to be at his office at 10:30 the following morning... he'd squeeze me in. I was there at 10:00.

At 11:20 he finally waved me into his examination room.

Now, there are ups and downs to having a drinking buddy who is also one of your health professionals.

On the plus side, there is none of the professional intimidation one sometimes feels when under the care of a stranger there in the reflected glare of a half dozen framed diplomas, degrees and certifications.

But on the down side, when someone you've swilled wine and beer with is poking and prodding something that might turn out to be a death sentence, it's surprisingly hard to keep up your end of the friendly banter.

I might add that whether you know the doctor personally or not, it is devilishly difficult to decipher the taciturn grunts, 'hmmmms' and barely audible 'there' you might hear during the exam. Simply put; Whether you know the doc well or not, you're gonna have to wait for the end of the exam before you get the news.

The interim news was encouraging. He said that the odds of these things being cancerous in men is relatively low. Surprisingly, as someone who occasionally buys a lottery ticket, long odds did nothing to assuage my fears... and I told him as much.

He assured me that we wouldn't be leaving anything to chance and that he would be scheduling me for his next surgery day (a week hence) so he could remove it and have it biopsied.

The delay, he explained, was partly because he was already overbooked for that week's surgery, and partly because he wanted me on antibiotics for at least a few days before the surgery because he suspected that at least part of the swelling around the lump was some kind of infection..

Those next few days forever elevated the whole breast cancer thing from a theoretical cause I raise money for in order to show how evolved I am, to the kind of bogeyman that will always be lurking in the dark corners of my sleep, waiting to pounce.

After what seemed like roughly a decade, the day of the surgery finally rolled around and I presented myself for my day of reckoning.

My friend was very businesslike, and seemed genuinely puzzled by my anxiety. He assured me that the most painful part of the surgery would be the sting of the local anesthetic as it was injected (he wasn't kidding!).

When I tried to explain that I was okay with pain… but that the specter of what he might find when he started cutting had kept me from having a decent night's sleep since we had last spoken, he got an expression on his face similar to the way my dog looks at me when I try to explain my feelings to her; good natured, head tilting confusion.

Here's where the disconnect exists between medical professionals and laymen:

If we come to you with a symptom that WEBMD.com says might possibly be cancer, unless you emphatically state that there is absolutely zero chance that our symptom is cancer, everything else you say to us sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher (cue 'wawawa' trombone noises).

Once the surgery was completed and I was suitably sutured and bandaged, I became fairly sure I hadn't drawn a breath in 15 minutes… and was feeling decidedly light-headed from the lack of oxygen. So with the last wisp of CO2 in my lungs I managed to squeak out what I hoped was a casual-sounding, "So, what do you think?".

My buddy the surgeon looked at me blankly and said, "About what?"

As my consciousness circled the drain I managed to say, "Um, about whatever you took out of my armpit". Is it cancer?"

At that point I think my friend's face showed more annoyance than comprehension… but that could just be the glare from the bright white light I was seeing from the end of a long tunnel. He shook his head and said, "Oh, I thought we discussed this. Just as I suspected it was an infected sebaceous cyst. I'll send it out for biopsy, but I can already tell you that everything looks fine. There was never anything to worry about."

At that point I think I must have started breathing again because, well, I didn't die right there on his table (duh!). But I also knew with certainty that no shower would ever be the same for me. No matter the long odds and slightly foolish feeling that I'd made too big a deal of this incident… I knew that I would be living the rest of my life like a death row prisoner who has been given a last minute reprieve by the governor. In short; like every woman who performs her self exam each month and steps from the shower with another 30 days of life to live.

If you are still reading this (and I hope you are), please give generously to support breast cancer research.

And if you are a man, please kiss your wife / mother / daughter for no apparent reason for the incredible courage and personal fortitude they have to show throughout their lives in the face of this decimating disease.

 

Posted by David Bogner on January 29, 2013 | Permalink

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אמן.

Glad to hear all is well.

Posted by: a. | Jan 29, 2013 3:56:29 PM

Scary stuff - but as usual you wrote about it very well. Hope this is the closest you ever get to the "machla" (as my mother-in-law calls it).

Posted by: westbankmama | Jan 29, 2013 4:41:43 PM

Glad you found the cyst quickly and everything is OK. While not cancer,infections are dangerous.

Posted by: Ed | Jan 29, 2013 5:29:56 PM

Frequently, I want to adopt you and Zahava as family, because you both take the "little things" that happen in your lives, and extrapolate them to your general love of mankind, and what the other guy might be going through. Thank you for wearing our high heels for a while, rather than keeping this little tale of terror to yourself. Yup. That's just how it feels.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jan 29, 2013 6:43:11 PM

I hear ya! Exactly the same experience 12 years ago, 3 cysts removed, but I had to wait for a biopsy. Longest 48 hours of my life.

The "funny" side was that the doctor showed me something that resembled those paint drawings you do as a kid where you fold the paper in half and one side of the picture becomes a mirror of the other. EVIDENTLY the distribution of cysts (there were more than the ones that were removed) were so symmetrical, that my boobs were the talk of the hospital! Guess everyone has to have 5 minutes of fame:-)

Very happy to hear that all is well. Phew

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | Jan 29, 2013 7:53:55 PM

So happy to hear all is well. Pooh, pooh, pooh

Posted by: SaraK | Jan 29, 2013 9:45:12 PM

Thank goodness all is well. I discovered at the end of your post that I'd been holding my breath through most of it.

Posted by: Rahel | Jan 29, 2013 9:53:55 PM

Yes, thank G-d you're fine...and I'd like to "like" rutimizrachi's comment. :-)

Posted by: Alisha | Jan 30, 2013 10:13:57 AM

Glad to hear that all's well.

Maybe it's because of my science background, but I've never really had a disconnect between what my doctor said and what I heard, unlike The Lovely Wife(tm). To give an example: do these two statements sound the same to you?

1. "Your baby's a bit underweight for his age. I'd like you to supplement his diet and bring him in next week. If he continues to not gain weight, I'd like you to start him on formula."

and

2. "You're starving your child, you horrible mother, and should be ashamed that you can't even manage to feed your child properly! You're lucky that I'm not calling child services immediately!"

Haha, just joking around, honey, please don't kill me (ducks flying cookware)!

Oh, and I second and third the call to donate towards breast cancer research; this scourge has cost us at least two dear ones that I know of, and is currently battling a third.

Posted by: efrex | Jan 30, 2013 2:51:43 PM

i had a simliar experience last year. mine did not end with surgery - only an mri with dye and a trip to let the surgeon (and his young accomplice) feel me up.
i have a lump. its nothing but a lump.
i was fairly calm through the two week ordeal. tho there was one night. one night of my head spinning itself out of control- no webMD needed. i was quite certain of my diagnosis and was already planning my eventual masechtomy. perhaps i would just have them take both - erring on the side of caution.
who was that said the mind is a terrible thing to waste :)

Posted by: weese | Jan 30, 2013 11:23:58 PM

I can't seem to get past the image of your chest swelling out of a bikini top.

Anybody want my muffin?

Posted by: Ed | Jan 31, 2013 4:19:08 PM

Great post - glad to hear you're OK.

I don't take this business lightly, especially given that one of the guys in our morning Minyan group is dealing with breast cancer. So, yeah, men can get it too. Meanwhile, heal up fast. Infected cysts are no fun either.

Posted by: Elisson | Jan 31, 2013 6:18:20 PM

Note: Even in women, most lumps are non-cancerous... but DO need checking out.
Great post.
Yeah, cancer can be scarey--

Posted by: rickismom | Feb 7, 2013 12:45:16 AM

Well, that was a very good description of how I felt about the whole business when I found a lump that turned out to be just a cyst. (Minus the young doctor chasing the cyst around with a biopsy needle while I watched on the ultrasound, or me realizing that the anesthetic was going to start running out any minute now... heh! Hilarious!)

OTOH, I don't know anybody, even women who've had breast cancer, who regards the monthly self-exam as anything scary. I mean, it's routine. Humans have always examined themselves for bad spots during their grooming, and there's a lot bigger chance of getting a melanoma than breast cancer. The bathtub is more deadly, honestly, and you can't live life fearing a bathtub.

Right now, you are writing while still filled with relief and worry. You won't always feel that way. Things will get normal again soon.

Posted by: Suburbanbanshee | Feb 22, 2013 3:17:36 AM

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