Friday, October 17, 2003

Jody's Breasts

We’ve had to learn a whole new set of terms lately: DCIS, mammotone, microcalcification, sterotactic biopsy.

All of these are words that have to do with suspicious breasts. It started about a month ago when Jody went in for her first mammogram.

She asked for it.

“I’m feeling fine. In great shape, really. Nothing wrong at all,” Jody explained to our family doctor. “I just want to stay one step ahead of the game.”

Jody turned 40 last year, so the timing was certainly right. She scheduled a routine mammogram at Israel’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, and we thought that should be that.


I got the call a few days afterwards. It was from the radiology department. But they wouldn’t talk to me.

“We really need to speak to Jody,” the sweet but detached voice on the other end of the phone said.

“What, is something wrong?” I shot back, perhaps a tad too quickly.

“Are you her husband?” the voice replied, sensing my need. “Well, we need to do some additional x-rays.”

When pressed, though, she still wouldn’t say why.

Jody made a second appointment.

At the hospital again, the doctor explained that they had found some microcalcifications – deposits of calcium in the milk ducts – in Jody’s left breast. This is normally fine unless these microcalcifications are irregularly shaped and bunched up in a particular area.

Which is what was going on with Jody.

“Don’t worry too much yet,” the doctor assured us. “80% of the time, it’s nothing at all.”

It’s the other 20% that sent us straight to the Internet. That’s where we started picking up the lingo.

The doctor said they want to check Jody further for something called “DCIS.” That stands for “Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ” – fancy-talk that means whatever’s going on is staying in one place and hasn’t spread.

Yes, 80% of the time it’s just fine, the literature agreed. But the other 20% signals the first stages of breast cancer. The next step in this case is a “lumpectomy.”

Another sinister sounding word to learn.

Now, if you google “DCIS” you get 39,800 results. That’s enough to frighten the most stalwart. But Jody was remarkable. She can stay completely calm in situations like these. Until there’s definitive news, she always reminds me, there’s nothing to get anxious about.

In my case, however, to say I’m a worrywart would be putting it nicely. And so I began my worst “What If” scenarios.

I imagined life without Jody. Then life without Jody’s left breast. I am very fond of Jody’s breasts. I am very protective over them.

I thought about a good friend of ours whose mother recently was recently diagnosed with the same diagnosis of microcalcifications. A biopsy showed it was malignant. When the doctors performed the lumpectomy, they found it had spread to her lymph nodes.

But the literature says there is a nearly 100% cure rate. At this early stage, if it is indeed something, they just cut and zap. It’s really no worse than a nasty case of bronchitis.

80-20, 80-20, I repeated to myself. This became my mantra for the three weeks we waited for the next appointment at Hala, the Jerusalem Comprehensive Breast Clinic.

Now, the Hala Clinic is the antithesis of a big impersonal hospital. And all they do is breasts.

Nice job if you can get it, I mused.

The clinic’s waiting room is tres chic, featuring a long wall made of rough-hewn Jerusalem stone illuminated by tasteful back-lighting. Jody and I sat and drank Wissotzky's new Chai Masala tea while filling in forms.

The doctor continued the reassuring tone as he ushered us in to the examination room. “I’m not even sure you should be doing this, but as long as you’re here…” he said.

The exam lasted longer than we expected. In it, Jody lay down on a table with a hole in the top third. The breast in question was carefully compressed in a machine that looked something like a hi-tech version of an ordinary tool shed clamp.

Using Jody’s x-rays and a computer, the exact location of the microcalcifications was mapped out, then a tiny incision made and the offending tissue sucked out. The doctor showed the tissue to Jody. It was pink with blood. After shipping it off to the lab for analysis, Jody underwent another couple mammograms.

I had to feed the meter twice.

The smiling doctor informed us that we could expect to hear the final results in about a week. That gave me plenty of time to think about the irony. We spend so much time worrying about terror and the dangers all around us in Israel, about which bus lines are safe and whether it’s OK to sit in cafes again.

And then Jody’s own body threatens her with the ultimate betrayal.

Exactly one week later, almost to the hour of the test’s conclusion, I received a text message on my mobile phone. It was from Jody. Probably an update on babysitters for a party we were going to that night, I figured. I was in the middle of a work meeting, but I opened it anyway.

The message has just one word:


October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, ten years ago, President Clinton proclaimed October 17 as National Mammography Day. Jody and I both hope this story inspires you to go in for a check up. More information is available at the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month website.

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