Imagine this: One morning you wake up and you have this thing. It’s right there on your chest, not your breast, but your chest, as though you are in the habit of wearing cheap metal pendants—and you actually have that habit, since on your last birthday your daughter made you a necklace out of rubber bands and colored paper clips—and all of a sudden you developed an allergy to that metal. Like a reaction. And now you have a tiny bubbly patch on your skin. And that’s what you think might have happened.
And you put it out of your mind. But it’s not really out of your mind, because the patch is still there, and you take to wearing Band-Aids on it. But it keeps not healing, this thing. And worse, it’s bigger and it hurts now. Finally you go to the doctor because you’re out of Band-Aids and your daughter keeps asking if you’re growing a third boob. Since you’re self-employed, you just show up at the urgent-care clinic in your neighborhood, because you know the people there are amenable to bargaining. Stuff like this matters now, as opposed to back when your policy was provided by a big corporation and you could indulge yourself in episodes such as the one you remember as The Great Tapeworm Panic of 1998.
By now you’re thinking maybe you got bitten by a spider or something. You hate the thought of a spider having been on your chest at some point, and without your knowledge, so it must have been in your sleep—so that means spiders have been crawling on you in your sleep—but you need a reason, and this one is easily fixable. But Amy, the physician’s assistant, doesn’t buy that reason. After she removes it—the “lesion,” as she’s now calling it—she tells you she’s going to send it—the “biopsy,” as she’s now calling it—to the lab.
Wait, what? It’s just a thing. You just woke up one day and there was this thing there, but what’s the worry? “You really need to get it checked,” Amy says.
Then Friday rolls around and you get a voicemail from Amy: “We got the results back from your biopsy. [Pregnant pause.] We need to talk to you.” Only you got the voicemail at 5:05 in the afternoon, so when you call the clinic there is just an outgoing message instructing you to call back Monday morning. So now you have, like, this thing to deal with all weekend! You break out in a sweat, and by bedtime you’re convinced you have a very aggressive strain of flesh-eating breast cancer.
You’ve got three months to live, you’re certain, which means you’re not even going to live longer than your own dad, who died really young, and him a chain-smoking alcoholic! You don’t smoke or drink—in fact, you hardly have any fun at all—and here you’re gonna kick the bucket faster than your own father, at whom you’ve been pretty pissed all these years for throwing his life away and leaving you all fatherless. Three months! You’ve got three months! Will you do the chemo thing? You don’t know. Your mother did and it didn’t help her at all. And your girl is young; it matters how you handle this. So you consider scenarios. One minute you decide to climb a pyramid in Peru and pitch yourself off the top, the next you want to fight for every breath, even if there’s nothing left but your tube-connected severed head in a fishbowl.
And it hurts worse now, this thing you have. Your whole chest hurts. You find yourself clutching it a lot, your chest, especially when you’re looking at your girl. You should have taken better care of yourself. You shouldn’t have baked yourself like a broken egg in the sun when you were younger. You should have known you’d be needed later, that someone you love would be damaged by your absence. Christ, how could you be so selfish? And then you realize what you’re going to do with the three months you have left to live. You will spend every second of it with your lips pressed against your daughter’s head.
By Monday you don’t even want to call, but your friend makes you. It’s cancer, all right, but not the flesh-eating breast kind. It’s some other kind that hardly ever kills you at all. You need a “full-body” something or other, and they tell you the name of a very expensive dermatologist, but you don’t care about the money now. You are relieved. Phew. Missed that bullet, you think. But your chest. It still hurts. You clutch it again. Your girl. Where is your girl? You must commence pressing your lips against her head.
Illustration by Peter Arkle