The Southwest Airlines plane was packed. We were sitting in one of the back rows, nestled next to each other, my head on her shoulder. For the last six days, we had been traveling all around Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She came along as my girlfriend … which wasn’t really the case, but this was a particularly stressful trip home, and I needed a buffer. I was flying home to see my father for the first time in 14 years; it had been 16 years since we were last on speaking terms. For six days, she remained supportive and patient as we visited my dad and stepmom; my mother and mom-mom; and my Uncle Ken and Aunt Crystal. We stayed at four different houses in under a week. We crossed state lines half a dozen times and easily put close to 1,000 miles on that rental car. Now, here we were, flying on the same plane back to our prospective home cities – Austin for her, Phoenix for me.
She breaks a long silence. “Would you rather I bring up a serious topic over the phone or in person?”
It was a bizarre question, awkwardly phrased.
“That’s a weird thing to ask. Um… in person. Always.”
“There’s a lump on your right breast.”
She told me later that my response shocked her. I gathered as much, for in that moment, she had no reply to my statement, and the air grew overwhelmingly heavy with each passing second of silence. Usually, i am not the one to break a silence. This time, i made an exception. “When did you notice it?”
“The first night.”
The first night. That makes sense; it was the only night we had sex. Every day after that was filled with family visits, road trips, and mundane adventures that were good for story-telling later but not remotely sexy in the moment. More silence. This time, she broke it.
“Are you going to get that looked at?”
I told her no. It wasn’t avoidance. I had discovered the lump ten months ago. At that time, i immediately scheduled an appointment with Dr. Mansfield, my primary care physician. On a typical afternoon on January 21, 2015, i laid on her clinical table while she moved her hands around my breasts, feeling nothing. She asked me to guide her to the area where i felt the lump. I couldn’t find it. We readjusted my body. Still nothing. “Do you have a history of breast cancer in your family?” Nope. “Is anyone in your family of Jewish descent?” Not that i know of. “Did you ever use birth control pills?” Yeah, but only for two years. “How long ago was that?” I stopped in 1999. “When did you first start menstruating?” When i was 12. “And you’ve never had kids, right?” Hell, no – i mean, no. Sorry, doctor. No. “Do you smoke?” No. “How often do you drink alcohol?” 3-5 times a week. “How often do you exercise?” 2-3 times a week. After the breast exam and the extensive questions, Dr. Mansfield told me straight out that my risk for breast cancer was low, and it was perfectly normal for breasts to be lumpy or dense. A lump felt one week and then gone the next didn’t necessarily mean anything. When she wrote me a referral to get a mammogram, she told me it was up to me if i wanted to go that route. She didn’t sound like she thought it was necessary, and i specifically remember her telling me in an off-handed manner to just hold onto the referral, in case the lump came back or in case i needed the testing to reassure myself. I went home, posted that referral on my refrigerator, checked my breasts every week for over a month, and took that referral off my refrigerator six weeks later.
“You should at least consider getting the scan done. That lump is large enough to warrant more attention.”
“I’ll think about it.”
We both knew i was brushing it off, brushing HER off. She didn’t push it further, and we quickly moved on to other subjects.
Later that day – after the airplane ride, after the pit stop to visit with an ex-girlfriend who lived by the airport – after the drive back to Phoenix, after the check-in with my roommates and a half-hearted attempt to start unpacking – i went to my bathroom. Alone in my own house for the first time in over a week, I took off my shirt and scrutinized my right breast. It didn’t take long for my eyes and my brain to work together to register just how large this lump had suddenly become, and when that happened, i knew i didn’t need a mammogram. I had cancer.