October 6. Biopsy day.

I did not realize my biopsy experience would come complete with a personal fairy godmother. Or how badly I needed one.

I entered Dr. Diane Palladino’s exam room too tired to be nervous about the procedure that would remove a sample of cells from the lump growing in my boob for testing, and in that moment of numbness came face to face with the first doctor of many who would care very well for me. But she was also my usher so to speak, showing me to my seat for a show I didn’t know I had a ticket for. One that she had seen so many times she knew it by heart.

She was matter-of-fact, and kind. In the latter part of her career, she was in possession of an elegant badassery that came from experience but also from kindness. She’d had compassion of a type and for long enough that makes us confident enough to be gentle when we need to be. Make no mistake, though, when I gave her permission to be straight with me, she grabbed her sword as lithely as any master dragon slayer and in an instant, cut through any thick fog my anxiety could kick up.

I’d explained to her my Bullshit MD radar was very well developed after having walked with my husband through his illness and death from gastric cancer. No soft-peddling, please. I could handle it. Even so, she was not just factual. She had empathy. She told me the size and shape of the tumor concerned her, and meant it was probably not benign. Clearly she took no prisoners when it came to malignancies. But someone who is calm enough to be that honest, temperate and kind to a patient going in and out of shock right in front of her was a virtuoso when it came to bedside manner. I imagined her stage-whispering to all the errant cells that made up my tumor, “Ok is everybody listening? Good. Some of you are getting sampled and then the rest are getting evicted. As soon as we find out what brand of killer you are, we’re showing you the door. Got it? Everybody out of the pool.”

She mentioned that she herself had two sisters living with breast cancer. She’d clearly done this moment over and over again through her career. She got it. Breast cancer happens to people, not to breasts.

She wielded the instrument used to draw out suspicious cells so deftly that it was over before I could register my shock at how loud a KERCHUNK was leveled from it. I chose not to watch, so I don’t know exactly what it’s called, but it sounded something appropriately named “Satan’s Stapler” or “Hole Punch From Hell”. That thing was loud. It should have made me jump right off the table, but I only dimly took notice. By then I didn’t care whether Dr. Palladino was wielding a wand or a sword. I felt safe.

Because something else was happening. Instead of continuously moving terror, shock, and exhaustion around on my dessert plate trying to find a way to digest them, I’d stopped. For a brief second, I noticed I was calm. It occurred to me that for almost the entire appointment, instead of trying to summon the energy to deal with what was happening, I’d been still. And in that stillness were flickers of something else that I couldn’t quite tease out. But they weren’t bad.

After I got dressed, Dr. Palladino told me she would put a rush on the results. “And Susan, what I suggest you do in the meantime — ” she began.

“ — Drink?” I interjected. It seemed reasonable. She laughed.

And that laugh! It was a laugh that reminded me of…well, mine actually. Or of how my laugh has been described to me. Big. One that gladly escapes my boring old lungs in pursuit of space and freedom, longing to take a lap around the room. It actually feels that way when it bursts out of me, like it can’t help itself, it just does what it does, propelled by joy. Unafraid, here we go, come what may.

A laugh that people say they miss when I’m not around.

So if there was a freaking breast surgeon with that laugh? Meant there was hope. Maybe. A little.

Later I found out her expertise and her experience make her something of a rock star in the Seacoast part of southeast New Hampshire, a community made up of a collection of small towns, each more charming and picturesque than the next. Because even my oncology surgeon down in Boston where I would ultimately pursue treatment had heard of her. All I knew was that by the end of my appointment, she had vanquished something inside of me, something that wanted to be in charge of the whole experience and whose only question was Just Tell Me If I’m Going To Die or Not.

Only now, pertinent as it was, I wasn’t so sure that was right question at all.

How many fairy godmothers are left, I wonder? Because, seriously, sometimes the suffering on this planet and what its creatures plead for in response seems to have no intention of resolving itself anytime soon.

An Intuitive in a spiritual crisis is not pretty.

After all, I had spent most of my life energized by a passion for articulating spiritual living and teaching about intuition because it helps. It’s what makes life worth living. I believed this, in part because I had spent a thirty-year careerdemonstrating the power of recognizing intuition as a natural resource.

Furthermore, I was operating under the understanding that the whole point of helping my husband die and helping my children recover from it was the only point. Because the kind of trauma and heartbreak we had just experienced had pushed me farther and deeper into my understanding of the power of grace than I’d ever known. My husband had died peacefully. We were transformed. Weren’t we? I hadn’t always done it perfectly. But from deep in my heart, with as much surrender and abandon as I could muster I’d asked God, The Universe, and Everything to work through me and help me respond lovingly to my family’s tragedy, and my intuition had not failed me the entire time. Not once.

Yet there I was, sitting in my car in the Trader Joe’s parking lot not 24 hours after the biopsy, less than five full days after my regular mammogram had welcomed me into Breast Cancer Awareness Month with a snicker, listening to a message that had come in from Dr. Palladino while I’d been in the store. Grocery shopping, because it’s all I could think of doing that made sense while I waited for news.

It was time to call her back because the results were in. And all could feel was the the empty, hollow ache of bad news moving up from my fingertips throughout my entire body. A kind of nothingness that was definitely something that I didn’t want to be something.

I knew.

Another phone call replayed itself through my memory almost verbatim. Receiving the news of my husband’s diagnosis. Wiping a few tears, I had the thought that maybe I should move my car before I called the doctor back. Because I didn’t want to taint the kind of 30-year love affair only a native Southern Californian can have with Trader Joe’s. I might never be able to stomach shopping there again. That’s why they tell chemo patients not to eat their favorite foods right after an infusion.

Afterwards I called my sister. I called my friends. I called my brother and my mom. I relayed the facts: The tumor was malignant. It was the most common type of breast cancer, one that most women get regardless of other risk factors. It was receptive to both estrogen and progesterone, which was good, because these kinds of tumors are sluggish and slow-growing and the least aggressive kinds of breast cancers. They needed to test it for the HER2 gene (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) again, because they hadn’t gotten a definitive result, and this would give them information about other levels of aggressiveness in the tumor. But even if it was HER2 positive, there were good drugs for that. The next step was an MRI and a genetic test. Could my mother send me the results of her own diagnosis from nine years ago?

Then it was time to drive home. That’s all I had to do, drive home. But the quiet in the car after the phone calls was stunning, oppressive, and I just sat there for a while until I could move. The click of the ignition switch, my heartbeat, and my sniffling were still so loud against it that I turned on the radio to drown them out. But that was too loud too.

I remembered my very English husband talking about how he hated the expression, “the fight against cancer”, or even worse when people were described as having “lost their battle with cancer”. They were his own cells that had gone rogue after all, he explained. Why should he go to war with himself? He likened his cancer to a group of misbehaving adolescents who were on a rebellious tear and needed to be told to behave. To queue up properly.

“But you won’t have to worry about that,” he said, and I realized he was there in the car with me. “Don’t attach to any single part of this, because you are going to be ok. You don’t have cancer. You have a tumor.”

Well, Darling, tell that to the fucking path lab. And my doctor while you’re at it.

I also had the job of having to tell our children about it. They were going to hear the word cancer and believe I was dying. I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t. I mean I was pleased that the dearly and recently departed hubby was so optimistic, but having to tell my boys I had just been diagnosed with cancer was going to kill me, surely. I did not have the strength and I knew it.

As I began the drive home, I knew nothing confidently for the first time in my life. There was no wisdom supplied by intuition. There was no hope. There was no fight in me whatsoever. There were just loud sounds in a quiet car.

I arrived in my driveway deeply astonished at how each sacred, holy life here on earth can be so challenged sometimes. I mean, yes. Of course. Duh. It’s part of the deal. But suddenly everything I’d believed and understood either had to make complete sense or was wrong. Because with my diagnosis I was now vulnerable to my worst nightmare, any parent’s worst nightmare. I was actually in danger of having to watch my own children become orphans.

I don’t know when or if I’d stopped crying, but I started again harder as I began to wonder if maybe I’d just fallen victim to the greatest long con since The Sting. How stupid of me to think the boys and I could come back from any of this. Who did I know who had even remotely gone through what the last two and a half years had served up? What if this chapter of our lives hadn’t been transformational at all, just a prelude to other disasters. How was I going to look at my children who had lost their father just over a year before to a deadly cancer and tell them I had cancer too?

I took a deep breath, and then haltingly through my tears, offered up the only prayer I could think of to God, The Universe, and Everything:

How dare you take me away from my babies.

How fucking dare you.

And then I wiped my eyes and went into the house.

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