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The Day My Girlfriends Were Brutally Honest

I felt as if the inside of my head had been spring-cleaned.

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Getting the brutal truth from friends
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“Can we share a holiday cheers?” read Susan’s text.

It was the frantic few days before the holidays. Jennifer and I both responded thumbs-up anyway. While not old friends, we are former colleagues who instantly clicked and became even closer over good Sauvignon blanc, honest conversation and, of course, laughs.

The night of our holiday cheers we brought each other a small but meaningful gift without mentioning we would. Then, over Prosecco and a Trader Joe’s cheese board, we got right into it, covering everything from jobs and kids to the perennial subject of health. When I mentioned that I hadn’t had a general practitioner for 17 years, they were aghast.

“Unacceptable,” said Jennifer.

Both shared the contact information for their doctors and urged me to find a practice. Heeding their advice, I set up a checkup for right after New Year’s.

“You have a lump on your right breast,” my doctor informed me. “Is it new?”

The truth is, I never check myself because my breasts feel like, well, Beanie Babies, so how would I know? But I had had a 3D mammogram six months earlier, so I wasn’t particularly worried. The doctor handed me an order for a diagnostic mammogram and instructed me to follow up.

Later that same day at the grocery store, I ran into a neighbor who had recently managed a full recovery from breast cancer. As we chatted, I mentioned the lump discovery, couching it with a lack of concern due to my recent screening.

She flinched.

“That’s exactly what happened to me,” she said. “A lump, six months after a clean mammogram. Get checked.”

Was this a coincidence or an omen?

In the last few years, three of my closest friends had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, 1 in 8 women in the United States will get that diagnosis in her lifetime. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, and it’s the second leading cause of cancer death among women.

First thing Monday morning, I called the radiologist. The soonest they could see me was 7:45 a.m. that Friday. In the meantime, I decided to put the lump out of my mind. Maybe it was nothing.

Later that evening, a group text informed me that a dear friend from college had died suddenly. We would come to learn that J.R. had a massive heart attack without any warning. Over 40 friends flew from all over the country to attend his funeral in Rhode Island. Those of us who couldn’t make it, like me, were kept in the loop with group texts, emails and a Google photo album that someone had started.

J.R.’s number was up. I just had a lump. There was a big difference, I kept reminding myself. And yet … cancer doesn’t run in my family, it gallops. My grandparents and uncle died from the disease. My sister has had cancer three times, including a tumor in her breast.

Then there was my own bout with melanoma when I was six months pregnant. At the time, my surgeon told me that there were two main causes of skin cancer. One was the sun, and the other was stress. “My advice to you is avoid stress whenever possible,” he told me, adding that they would have to biopsy the placenta at birth. There was a chance I might pass on the disease to my unborn baby.

My daughter was born healthy, thank God. For the following five years, I meticulously followed the protocol of quarterly derm visits.

Finally, it was time for my appointment. I watched a Golden Girls rerun on the waiting room TV until the technician led me back and performed the mammogram.

“The doctor will read the X-rays and tell you if an ultrasound is needed,” she informed me.

As I waited, I distracted myself with the email chain of the Boston College alumni still reeling from J.R.’s sudden death.

“The loss of J.R. is a sad but important reminder of how special our friendships are. Despite busy lives we should find ways to connect more frequently,” wrote one classmate.

Indeed, connecting with friends was what brought me to this very moment.

The technician reappeared.

“The doctor wants you to have an ultrasound,” she said, leading me to another room.

I lay back on the table and tried to keep my mind from heading into one of its bad neighborhoods. On average, every two minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, and one woman will die of the disease every 13 minutes.

My children lost their father three years ago. For me to abandon them was inconceivable. And yet I realized I had no contingency plan if the worst were to happen. Deciding who would raise them would require soul-searching, serious conversations and an amendment to my will.

The doctor — an Asian woman with a friendly, open face and red lipstick — entered. She was  smiling.

“Sorry for the wait. I had to get your doctor on the phone to find the exact location of the lump,” she said. “Your mammogram was clean, but the ultrasound will give us a better look.”

She pointed to the images on the monitor. My breasts looked like marbled orbs of Wagyu beef.

“Scattered densities,” she said. “Very normal.”

It was only then that I realized I had been holding my breath.

“What a relief,” I said.

“Oh, were you anxious?” she asked, which surprised me.

I nodded.

“Ninety-nine percent of Stage 1 and 2 breast cancer is treatable,” she said. “You should get checked every three months just to be on the safe side.”

As I changed back into my clothes, I felt as if the inside of my head had been spring-cleaned. The beautiful words of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” floated into the spaciousness of my mind: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I will be stricter with my son’s technology use, and more lenient with my daughter’s habit of procrastinating at bedtime. I’ll confront my own procrastination of getting my affairs in order, even if they are unpleasant. I’ll appreciate what it feels like to be alive in my body, which is a miraculous — and temporary — gift (as it is for every human being). And I’ll continue to revel in the time well spent with the guardians of my galaxy, my girlfriends.