Author Laura Zigman
Last year, about a week before I turned forty-four, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Normal people would find this news shocking but I didn’t. I’d always known, deep down, due to my strong family history of breast cancer and my genetic predisposition for pervasive generalized ambient negativity (PGAN) that I would eventually get it. Which is why I started having yearly mammograms at thirty and dragging my breast films with me whenever I moved.
For as long as I could remember I’d been catastrophizing various horrible scenarios about finding a lump so far gone that the remainder of my life would play like Debra Winger’s in Terms of Endearment and eventually after another clean mammogram the radiologist reading my film suggested that at some point I get a more definitive imaging test – specifically, an MRI.
This sounded like a terrific idea, and completely in keeping with my pessimistic health forecasting but I promptly forgot about it – so busy was I in the early stages of my pre-publication self-promotion for my first book in four years – and several months went by before I remembered to ask my primary care physician about it. Oddly enough, despite the fact that this doctor practiced right in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle of Boston medical institutions – Harvard Medical School, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and The Mass. General Hospital – and despite my oft-mentioned family history of the disease – and despite the fact that she was a woman – she tried to talk me out of having the test. But I persisted and my doctor relented and ordered a breast MRI for me. After scheduling it and rescheduling it twice, I finally kept my mid-summer appointment at the Sagoff Breast Centre at the Faulkner Hospital.
A week after the MRI and follow up ultrasound and needle biopsy, a different radiologist gave me my diagnosis over the phone: I had Ductal Carcinoma in Situ, also known as DCIS, an early type of cancer that starts in the milk ducts. It was Stage 0, she said – a stage I’d never heard of but which meant that although the cancer was there, it hadn’t gone anywhere.
Strangely, though, at some point during the radiologist’s explanation of the diagnosis, I’m certain I heard her say this: “Don’t let the word carcinoma fool you. It’s a type of pre-cancer condition routinely treated by lumpectomy and radiation.” Which was a huge relief: pre-cancer wasn’t cancer! I thought happily, and this important distinction made calling everyone I knew who was waiting to hear about my test results – including my husband and my catastrophizing parents – a whole lot easier.
I was still under the impression that I had a pre-cancerous non-cancerous type of cancer that wasn’t really cancer when I met with the head surgeon of the hospital a week later.
But just minutes into my two-hour consultation I suddenly noticed how often the surgeon was using the word “cancer” as opposed to “pre-cancer.” I felt like I was having a job interview with someone who was looking at the wrong resume and I kept waiting for a good time to cut in and make the correction.