Clearing Away Clutter — and the Fear of Another Cancer


For one survivor, finding a lost breast prosthesis coincided with another cancer scare.

I was attempting not to think about the possibility of more cancer, but a cleaning spree during the pandemic made it hard to ignore.

For two months, I went about my life without my breast prosthesis. I had lost it, and my insurance paid for only one a year. It really didn’t matter, because my special cancer bras had firm cups, and when I wore them, I hardly needed the little prosthesis that fit on the one side of my bra. I looked fine. Plus, this was during the pandemic, and everyone had a pass in the “looks” department. My prosthesis was simply gone, and I thought I’d never find it again.

A key aspect about blogging about your cancer life is that you “sign” an unwritten contract to be honest. For this reason, I am going to admit that I am a cancer survivor slob. I’m messy. So, it will come as no surprise to you that I hadn’t decluttered our bedroom since the pandemic hit. That was in March, in case you forgot. Our bedroom, the one that I share with my dear husband who has suffered through two bouts of my cancer with me, was a bit nest-like. In fact, I liked to call it “the rat’s nest.” Piles of clothes sat on the floor. My sock basket was overflowing with unmatched socks. Good dresses and suits had slipped off the hangers in the closet and were lying on the ground. A pile of magazines lay next to my bed, where I’d tossed each one after I’d finished reading it.

But then, something changed. Recently, I went back to teaching writing at the local university, albeit remotely, and something about that activity interrupted the malaise I’d felt since COVID-19 began. Suddenly, I felt like cleaning. I couldn’t possibly do it in the daytime, so at about 8:30 on a Friday night, I tackled my mess.

In my cleaning that night, I found so many things that I hadn’t seen in six months. I found my burgundy, long-sleeved blouse with the bell sleeves; I found my nightgown that said, “Due to unfortunate circumstances, I am awake.” And, wait for it: I found my breast prosthesis. It was under a pile of clothing next to my dresser.

I was glad to have it back. I wore it then. It made me feel more put together and respectable.

However, it was hard to ignore the fact that, underneath it, was a bright purple lesion that my oncologist was following. I’d had the ugly spot for two weeks. She wanted me to inform her on Tuesday if it was gone. If it hadn’t disappeared, she was going to biopsy it.

It was probably nothing. I’d had so many false alarms that I was not worried about this one. I felt a bit like a cat with nine lives — a cat in a prosthesis who was hoping she had one or two of those lives left.

And so, I marched forward.

One week later, the saga continued: they wanted to biopsy the lesion.

I asked my oncologist’s assistant what the lesion looked like, and she said, “It looks like a pimple, but it’s purple.”

“Well, should I ignore it?”

“No, we investigate unusual lesions on folks who’ve had cancer issues before. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

So, the punch biopsy was Thursday, and there were more days of uncertainty ahead.

The biopsy went swimmingly. It didn’t even hurt. My mother had been watching Mass on television and praying for me, and we were convinced this was why I had no pain.

At that point, I had a couple of stitches in my breast. Those would come out in about a week, but I would learn my fate in the next few days. I was not too stressed, just extra tired. I’d feel much better when I knew definitively that the cancer hadn’t come back.

There was a lot to do to keep my mind off cancer. We celebrated my son’s 16th birthday. I received a set of 38 papers to grade. I taught remote classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, signing on happily, as if nothing was happening. I wondered if I would need to quit teaching if I got cancer again, cancer for the third time.

Can you say “nightmare?” Did I have cancer? Didn’t I have cancer? I couldn’t get through to the people at the breast cancer center to tell me what was going on. It was 10:00 a.m. on the day I expected results, and they were still not picking up their phone. I kept getting their answering service. Finally, an operator took pity on me and transferred me to a secretary who was privy to my information. She checked my file. “No, still in process,” she said. It looked like I had to wait another day.

The next day, I called again and got the answering service. It was 9:10 a.m. But the operator finally figured out the problem. I was calling the answering service phone number, not the number of the cancer center. She gave me the right number, and I quickly dialed it. I reached Karen, the woman with the info. She checked my file again. “Benign,” she said. “It’s a benign inclusion cyst.”

Can you say “relieved?”

I went thrift shopping to celebrate, picking up a SpongeBob Christmas ornament for my kid and a pair of shoes for my mom. As I was driving home, my oncologist called, all bubbly and happy. “I’ve got good news,” she said. I hated to tell her she was a little late. “It’s a benign inclusion cyst.”

“I talked to Karen a few minutes ago,” I said. “But this is great news!” I was trying to sound as elated as my doctor, but I’d had too many near-cancer misses, and this was just another one to add to my list. “Thanks for letting me know, Mary.”

“We’ll see you soon to remove the stitches,” she said.

Driving home, the sky did look a bit brighter, and somehow I was not as weary as I had been.

Cancer was not going to get me today.

Not today and maybe not tomorrow.

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