The Scar Marker

There’s something about anniversaries — births, deaths, weddings, partings. Milestones of joy and of grief. Whether you avoid or embrace them, they mark you like scars, like a permanent alteration in your DNA. And they keep marking you as they cycle around each year, reinterpreting and refining your memory of the original event, sometimes without your willing or conscious knowledge, working on you like an inner lapidary.

Today is not even an exact anniversary. But it is within a few days of the original, and circumstance has allowed it to stake its own claim of significance. Just over a year ago, I was in the hospital, sacrificing half of my right breast to a surgeon’s knife because of cancer.

I was back there today, a year later, at that hospital, in that mammography suite where I had a last mammogram just before my surgery a year ago. The purpose of that pre-surgical mammogram was to find the cancer one last time, to check it’s proportions, and to locate the tiny metal chip that had been placed inside my breast a month earlier by a radiologist during the stereotactic biopsy. Using that chip as a landmark, this radiologist had to measure the spread of the ductal carcinoma calcifications and thread a wire into the center of that spread so that my surgeon could cut it all out.

It turned out that the spread of calcifications was larger and deeper than we all thought. So, at the last minute, the radiologist decided that my surgeon would need two wires to mark the spread accurately — and I remember in my bleary, anxious, pre-surgically fasting state her saying the words, “I need to bracket this.” And so, with my breast and sternum now bruised by a first, overzealous, misplaced clamp of the mammogram paddles — the special ones for wire localization with the window on one side — my breast was adjusted yet again, and the radiologist, at a horribly awkward angle, tried to get some topical anesthetic into it before she inserted the wires. I sat on a rolling stool, breast and face pushed into the mammography machine. The radiologist sat on my left, reaching around the unit and aiming a small syringe of anesthetic through the window in the paddle. The mammographer sat on my right, helping to keep me still, ready to adjust my position again if needed. And rounding out this quartet, an aide, a well-meaning but incredibly irritating women who kept pushing my chin up, nearly choking me as she exhorted me to breath.

The first wire went in easily and painlessly. The second did not. I felt it along its entire, excruciating length like a hot needle that made my nipple feel like it might explode. With remarkable calm, I resisted slapping the aide’s hand from my face and instead gently moved it aside so I could quietly inform everyone, “I’m going to pass out.” As soon as I said the words, the mammographer released the paddles and rolled me away from the machine. She and the radiologist parked me by a cabinet, and all three women proceeded to stroke and pat me down with cool wet cloths. I revived slightly and again announced quietly, “I’m going to throw up.” A pink, kidney shaped plastic basin was placed before me, which I grasped and proceeded to baptize with bile. “This happens sometimes,” the radiologist explained.

The rest of the day was cake by comparison. I was prepared for the surgery itself with conscious sedation by an IV which included, I’m not ashamed to say, one of my favorite chemical substances — a fabulous sedative called Versed. I had a lovely and refreshing nap, and woke up later with an abdominal binder wrapped around my chest, and nurses in my day surgery cubicle giving me ice packs and fixing me juice and English muffins. My friend Trish, a nurse, who had accompanied me, was allowed to come back in while I revived. My surgeon came to check on me and said everything went very well. I got some discharge instructions and Trish drove me home. Her departure from my house overlapped the arrival of another nurse friend of mine, Betty, who brought mac and cheese and other provisions. By then, pickled in Versed, Percocet and god knows what else, I was feeling splendid, as well as very, very hungry. It was about 6 o’clock in the evening, and I convinced Betty to take me to an annual summer dinner being held that night at a local beach club, a kind of picnic/barbecue thrown by our visiting nurse agency each year.

“Are you sure?” she asked me, incredulous.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m starving, the food will be great, and I want to let everyone know I survived.” Not a conventional way to spend one’s first night after breast cancer surgery, but for me, a therapeutic one, full of relieved and joyous hugs, some tears, lots of laughter, and, yes, a great meal.

The year since has been more of the same, an emotional roller coaster of some of the lowest lows I’ve ever suffered and some of the most touching, poignant moments of unexpected love, compassion and joy I’ve ever experienced. It’s no wonder I feel a little crazy today, revisiting the scene of the crime, reliving all the emotion of the last year all at once. Plus there is the plain fact that mammograms will never be the same, freighted as they are now with the ever-present possibility that they will reveal cancer. So, I hated going to that hospital this morning, a year later, to get that damn mammogram, and at the same time I was grateful I was alive to get it.

And once again, a cancer-related necessary evil offered an unexpected lagniappe, a tiny, insignificant thing that struck me as so sweetly extraneous, so incongruously charming, I was struck yet again by the remarkable contradictions that outlasting a threat to my life has revealed to me. It was just a funny little stick-on marker consisting of a skinny adhesive strip with little pink pennants on either side of it. “It’s a scar marker,” the mammographer explained, as she fixed it onto the aureolar incision along my right nipple — my beleaguered, shriveled but still intact, finally-not-hypersensitive nipple — through which my surgeon had a year ago extracted a cellphone-sized amount of tissue. I examined this scar marker afterward in the dressing room, and I marveled that someone took the trouble to bother decorating this odd little band-aid, made for this odd little purpose, with tiny, cheerful pink flowers. I imagined some woman in a factory somewhere, loading up this flower-printed tape in some assembly gizmo, flipping a toggle switch and creating miles of these little scar markers. And I wondered if she knew what they were for, if she realized that her work would be worn on vulnerable and tender spots, by women in vulnerable and tender circumstances, who might smile in spite of themselves at this frivolous, innocent souvenir and dare to hope that this year, this mammogram would be as clear and harmless as a sunny summer day.

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Update: 8/19/09, 4:30p.m. EDT
With my own pesky persistence and, once again, with the perseverance & thoughtfulness of my surgeon’s wonderful office staff, we were able to get the mamm report this afternoon and it was NEGATIVE!!! Props to tanz21 on Photobucket & my friend Ms. Caudill for this pink Happy Dance.
Happy Dance

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This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 03:08 pm, filed under Fatigue, Health & Healthcare, Life & Mortality, Nitty Gritty, Survivorship and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “The Scar Marker”

  1. Many anniversaries are like scars, just as you said, but after reading this I realize none of mine come even close in comparison to yours. Mine are but scratches, honestly. You are so unbelievably strong and articulate your journey so beautifully. I’m so happy for you on the test results! And can’t help but to read over and over the part of the person making those scar markers. It would certainly be an interesting trip, in that morbid-fascinating kind of way, to see the process but more importantly, meet the person. Take care!

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