For weeks my quarantine experience mirrored so many others in the suburbs just outside New York City. Locked down at home with my husband and two teenage children. Hand washing and sanitizing on repeat. Nights filled with Zoom calls, puzzles, board games, and binging on Netflix. And then one night, sitting on the couch watching a marathon of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Channel, everything changed.
As I went to adjust my sports bra, my fingers grazed something, and I knew immediately what it was. A lump.
As soon as I felt it, I pulled my hand away and tried to convince myself maybe it wasn’t what I thought. I’m being silly, I told myself. Letting my mind get ahead of itself. This was just like all those times over the past month I’d diagnosed myself with coronavirus at any tickle in my throat. Googled symptoms and then worried every time I felt anything close to them.
I remembered a conversation I’d had just the day before about another friend who had to go to the dentist. What a nightmare having to go to any doctor in the middle of the pandemic, and good luck finding one for anything other than an emergency. I tried to convince myself that it was in my head. I watched the rest of the episode, brushed my teeth, washed my face, said goodnight to the kids and went to my room. But still, as I undressed, I took a deep breath and ran my fingers over the spot again with the sole purpose of proving to myself that it was nothing. And then I started to cry.
At 10:00 p.m. I sent my doctor an email: “I found what feels like a significant lump in my breast. I had my husband feel it and he felt it too. I am really scared (esp because I know this is the worst timing for this to happen). 🙁 Thank you.”
Her response came at midnight: “I’m sorry — you must have been so scared. Can I see you in the office tomorrow (Thursday)? I’ll be in our little satellite office. 1030?? Try to breathe. I will help you.”
The next morning, my first time in weeks outside of the house for anything but the food store, fabric mask with coffee filter in place, I am aware as I enter the doctor’s office of every doorknob and surface I touch. Aware that I am the only patient. Aware that the doctor washes her hands longer. That each time she leaves the room, she pumps hand sanitizer into her palm. Aware that after she examines me and I hear her call the breast specialist and say the words, “46-year-old female with a lump in left breast,” it is hard to cry with a mask on. That when she offers me a tissue, she takes two out first and has me take the third myself, so it is more sanitary. And I feel the coffee filter wet with mucus as I sputter through breaths and the doctor says, “I wish I could give you a hug,” and we both know why she can’t.
I leave the doctor’s office, get in my car and rub disinfecting wipes all over my hands, my only goal being the need to rip off my mask and let the sobs out. Here is the other side of coronavirus. If only I could will my body to wait, to not need attention until this pandemic is over. If only I wasn’t afraid that going to the very people who can help me might open me up to catching the virus myself.
In normal times, when I returned home, the kids would be at school and I would have had a few hours to digest it all. To take in the fact that my doctor didn’t say, “Oh, I think it’s nothing,” but instead set up a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy for the next morning. In the time of COVID-19, I return home and need to put on my game face immediately, lest I give my kids, who are already under more stress than they’ve ever been, even more to worry about.
In normal times, I would be more nervous about the tests themselves than I am at the prospect of going anywhere near a hospital. But these are not normal times.
The breast center is in an annex of my local hospital. A place I have been going to for 20 years. The same place I brought my kids to have checkups at the pediatrician. A familiar place. But as I enter the building the following morning, I am greeted by a police officer directing me to a table of nurses in masks and gloves. One nurse takes my temperature while another fires questions. “Have you been contact with anyone with the coronavirus?” No. “Have you shown any symptoms or tested positive for the coronavirus?” No. It is only then I am allowed to proceed past the lobby, and what I find as I walk the halls is like the remnants of a ghost town. Dark portions of hallway with no lights, and a shuttered coffee kiosk with a row of empty tables outside.
I am the only patient in the breast center for the mammogram and then one of two when I go up one flight to the surgeon for the biopsy. And what I feel most is an utter sense of being alone. It is not just that my husband is not allowed to come with me. It is the empty hallways. It is the chairs in waiting rooms positioned to accommodate six feet of separation. And most of all, it is the fact that what a month ago would have been faces with reassuring smiles are now a sea of masks.
Again, the news is not encouraging. When the doctor sees the lump he says, “It looks like it is something.” I thank him over and over for seeing me since many doctors aren’t. And again, I get in the car and douse myself in hand sanitizer, take the mask off and cry.
I consider myself a strong person, good at navigating through challenges. The daughter of an alcoholic father, a childhood laced with challenges trained me well. As an adult, I have faced infertility, IVF, job loss, financial worries, and have always managed to see the bright side. To appreciate what I did have and not what I didn’t. I tried to find that, but what I found instead as I awaited biopsy results is that I am not okay.
I am not okay because getting a biopsy and a cancer diagnosis is enough, but doing it and then worrying you will also get a virus that is ravaging the world is proving too much for me. Couple this with the emptiness of going through it in isolation and, for the first time, the bright side seems almost impossible to find. And when doctor calls and tells me that indeed, the tests are positive and yes, I do have breast cancer, what hurts more is having to tell my own mother about it from six feet away on her front porch and then leaving her without a hug.
Likewise, when what I need most is the distraction of friends and family, but what I have instead is quiet nights at home overloaded with news updates, coronavirus briefings and commercials that advertise things like #alonetogether. It is easier to feel the alone than any sense of the together.
And so, as this virus permeates the very fabric of our lives, it takes with it more than its own victims. More than dreams and careers. It takes away the very thing we all need most—each other. It robs us of the power of a smile, which instead remains hidden behind a mask. And for me, it takes away the chance to sit with friends and forget for a few hours that cancer is about to take over my life for a while. And as the days pass and I await my surgery, I try to find the blessings—the countless texts from family and friends with words of encouragement, my husband grabbing my hand and telling me we are in this together, and the smiles on my son’s and daughter’s faces that make it easy to find my own again and forget for a moment anything but that.