The Diagnosis

Los Angeles Times, Monday, December 8, 1997

Mary Herczog found out that, at 33, she had invasive breast cancer. Chemotherapy came next. How has she been coping? With fear, realism and humor. In monthly stories, she will chronicle her new life.


You would think my Times article a year and a half ago about getting a mammogram would have convinced my girlfriends to do regular breast checks. But no. I had to get breast cancer before they would go to the doctor.

Let me back up.

Early last year, a mammogram and an ultrasound diagnosed some lumps in my breast as cysts. These were promptly drained with a needle in a procedure you need hear no more about. I saw the doctor, a radiologist, again this past July. He then diagnosed more cysts, which I opted to leave alone, because they were harmless and because my never-large bra size would diminish with the draining. (Hey, you take what you can get.)

Consequently, one month later, when I found another lump, I dismissed it as a cyst the doctor had certainly noticed. And continued to dismiss it for a few weeks until it grew to more than the size of a peach pit and turned very hard.

When a lump turned up in my armpit, I knew. Or rather, suspected. Because there are things you don’t allow yourself to think.

When the radiologist, a fine man at the Breast Center in Van Nuys, suddenly turned off his friendly chatter, my suspicions grew. A biopsy was taken on a Thursday and I was told to call on Monday for news that I was still almost certain would be that this lump was a fibroadenoma–totally benign. My husband, Steve, and I spent a weekend telling ourselves this would turn out to be nothing.

After all, I’m 33, way too young to have breast cancer. There is no history in my family, except for my paternal grandfather, who died of it (oh, yes), but he was old (late 80s). Besides, I never–and I mean never–drank, smoked, did drugs or drank coffee, tea or soda. I even exercise regularly. And I eat sort of low-fat except when I’m in New Orleans. So how could I have breast cancer?

But on Monday, I was told the biopsy result was “suspicious for cancer,” that further tests were needed and I should come in on Nov. 6 to meet with the doctor. Steve and I took a vote, decided to overreact, and called my sister, an ob / gyn and family practice nurse practitioner. Deborah flew out from her home in Texas, trying not to let us see her worry, and almost succeeding.

So I wasn’t exactly surprised when the doctor told me the pathologist would “bet his children’s lives” that this was cancer. In both lump and lymph node, the latter being the bad news as this meant the cancer had spread.

As luck would have it, the Breast Center is a cutting-edge place that advocated lumpectomy rather than removing the breast. Mastectomy alone actually wasn’t an option; since the cancer was in the lymph node, it could already be elsewhere, so taking the breast would not solve the problem. The plan, already formulated, was to hit me with four months of chemotherapy to shrink the node and the lump (too big to cut out now without disfiguring my breast), remove both and follow up with six weeks of radiation and then four more months of chemo. And then, if all goes well, and it should, happy Fourth of July.

And if it doesn’t, goodbye, breast.

And if that doesn’t work, well, they say it’s going to work, and for me to think otherwise leads to madness.

You can spend a week thinking, “What if I have cancer, OK, so I’m going to lose my hair, which is bad, but I love hats, and I can explore my inner drag queen by wearing wigs” and other Pollyanna things. But, actually hearing someone tell you that removing your breast is a possibility in your future… well, pass the Kleenex.

Damn, damn, damn.

Next, I was introduced to my new chemo doctor, a jovial man. “You and I are going to be good friends,” he said, and I think he’s right. He outlined the many wonders waiting for me. My reactions went something like this:

Hair Loss: OK, I expected it. And since this should happen precisely two weeks from the first chemo day, perhaps I will invite all my friends over and turn it into a performance piece.

Fatigue: I can deal. It’s a great excuse for new pillows and sheets.

Nausea: Not good. The one thing in life I hate most is throwing up. The doctor tells me they have really good drugs to deal with it now. If they don’t work, I figure he can just come over and rock me to sleep at night.

Possible Infertility: Childbirth was not high on my immediate list of activities, but hearing that the choice might no longer be mine prompted a dog-in-the-manger reaction.

Loss of Libido: Hmm. This might not be good.

No Contact Lenses: Neat. My glasses make me look like a bug.

Weight Gain: WHAT???!!!

You mean to tell me that I am about to face my biggest fear, chemotherapy, and I don’t even get the consolation of ending up fabulously svelte? Instead, I might pack on a few pounds?

See, if someone who hasn’t heard about my latest escapade spots me walking down the street, bald and skinny, they will think, “Oh, no. Mary looks like she’s going through chemo. She must be really sick. Poor brave baby.” But if they see me bald and fat, they are going to think, “Boy, Mary’s really let herself go to hell.”

Is there no end to this inequity?

The next few hours, and ultimately days, passed in a haze of more biopsies and tests. In between them there were phone calls. Many, many phone calls. As no one outside of my sister knew about this until the actual diagnosis, the rest of the world needed filling in. Starting with my parents. A call nobody wants to make.

Soon, all three phone lines were humming. All night long. The reactions poured in, and while one does not enjoy creating anguish for one’s friends, the love and concern that result are as good as any medicine–in some ways better than a medicine that makes you vomit, lose your hair and gain weight.

My friend An, who accompanied me on that first mammogram, told me, “All you got out of that was a lousy article,” and assured me that henceforth, “I have no other conflicts in my life. Whenever you need me, I will be there.”

Brigid in New York reported immediate sympathetic hair loss. Closer to home, Rick bought me a Vegas showgirl wig. My hairdresser pal Craig came over the night before chemo to give me the short sassy ‘do he had always dreamed of for me. (The doctor had recommended that I cut my long hair so that when it began to fall out, it wouldn’t make such a mess.)

Fortunately, as a freelance writer, my work situation couldn’t be better. I work at home, usually reading books and scripts for Hollywood movie companies. Telling those companies meant still more phone calls, but the reaction was gratifying and reassuring. One and all insisted that I could work as much or as little as I wanted in upcoming months. I plan on the former. The nature of my job is such that I generally work in my pajamas anyway.

One handsome award-winning actor I work for immediately sent me a gorgeous floral arrangement. I was quite touched, but then I thought, how pathetic am I that I had to get cancer in order to get flowers from a movie star?

By now, I think I have sent half the Greater Los Angeles area (and much of the motion picture industry) scurrying off to their doctors for breast checks. I warned my friends not to be complacent just because they might be young.

And I swear to you, I am not doing this just to scare them or you. But I kind of hope it does.

Copyright (c) 1997 Times Mirror Company
Reproduced by permission