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I Almost Missed the Signs of Cancer Due to the Demands of Early Motherhood

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

By Anna Harris-Parker

Illustration by Rebecca de Araujo

I don’t remember the first time I touched the ocean, who taught me to swim, or when an evening bath became a luxury. Born five days after Summer Solstice, water, like air, has long been an essential part of my life.

Lately, I make little time to enjoy water outside of a drinking glass. I have a young son, a Scorpio, who lets me vicariously appreciate our shared element. Each night his bedtime routine brings a renewed fascination with the faucet, floating boats, and rubber ducks. We both laugh as he tries to grab hold of the magical liquid.

The night of my son’s first birthday, after a second slice of birthday cake and a glass of champagne, I indulged in a long shower — permitting myself to shampoo, condition, and mask my hair; exfoliate and shave above my knees. Then something — the same something that told me to take a pregnancy test before a vacation in 2019 — told me to check my breasts.

During health education in college, I was on high alert to regularly conduct my self-exams. I can still picture the how-to guide my best friend’s mom kept hanging in the upstairs shower we’d use when visiting. Like mine, no one in their family had breast cancer; they just liked to be prepared. Once I stopped breastfeeding my son at six months, I cannot recall the last time I did more than hurriedly brush a loofa over my chest.

I began with my right breast and immediately felt a hard, irregularly-shaped knot beneath the skin. Could I have a clogged duct after all this time? I worked the knot; it moved but didn’t otherwise give. For comparison, I made my way to my left breast. It felt fine — “normal.”

Before getting dressed, I stared at myself in the half-wall mirror. Did they look different? I couldn’t decide for myself. I slipped into bed next to my snoring husband and tried to steady my own breathing.

Two days later, I perched myself on an exam table in my gynecologist’s office. “The good news,” she began, “is this thing moves all over the place.” But she wanted me to “stop by” and let a surgeon take a look “to be thorough.” Ninety minutes later, I was half-naked in another exam room, answering a health history questionnaire with a young, soft-spoken nurse whose unmanicured nails suggested she was in a committed relationship or worked incredibly long hours.

Dr. Cooper was older than I anticipated. I placed him in his early to mid-seventies. He quickly put me at ease with his Southern drawl and matter-of-fact way of speaking — much like that of my father. After his nurse exited, a PA student shuffled in with the ultrasound machine, and the exam room shrunk to a glorified closet. I felt like Gulliver lying on the table, surrounded by Lilliputians.

The apologetic PA bumped into my chunky clogs as she scooted around, assisting her mentor who assured me my lump felt “just like a fibroadenoma.” He took two biopsies for good measure and then instructed his PA on how to gauze and tape my breast without offending my nipple. “Call my office to-morrow,” he said. “Around 3:30. Ask for Brittany.”

I couldn’t wait until 3:30 on Wednesday. I called Brittany at 2:50, then again at 4:20. She called me back just before 5:00 to say she was still waiting on my lab results. “This doesn’t mean anything,” she assured me. “I’ll be here for a while. I’ll call you soon before I leave.”

The same something that told me to check my breasts told me something was off about this timeline. I had googled Dr. Cooper after my ultrasound and biopsy. He’s won awards from the State of Georgia for establishing a breast health clinic that prides itself on a 24-hour turnaround for lab test results. If necessary, he calls patients over the weekend from his personal cell phone to lessen their anxiety from the dreaded waiting game.

It had been more than 24 hours since I left his office.

My phone finally rang at 5:30. I left my husband to oversee bathing our son, who protested when I stopped playing waterfall with the blue, plastic pitcher. I padded down the hallway to the nursery and took the call. “Ms. Pahrker, this is Dr. Cooper.” Naiveté allowed me to briefly believe he was calling because I’d had to wait so long for my results. He continued, “That is a little bit of cancer in your right breast. I want you to come in tomorrow morning at nine o’clock so I can talk to you about it.”

I hung up and lingered for a few seconds on the glider in my son’s room before returning to the bathroom, where I shared the news with my husband as if I were repeating a weather report.

“‘A little bit of cancer’? What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.” I grabbed a clean washcloth and dried water droplets from our son’s face.

Motherhood has afforded me a special kind of stoicism. In the minutes following Dr. Cooper’s call, I let his words evaporate and became absorbed in this nightly routine: wrapping my son in a hooded towel, brushing his handful of teeth, wriggling him into his footed pajamas, reading Sandra Boynton for the umpteenth time, then singing “You Are My Sunshine” until he drifts to sleep.

This is not to say I didn’t break down (I did), but I was careful to shield my son from my raw emotions. As my hair began to thin, then fall, my husband arranged for a haircut in our kitchen so our son could witness the change. Later, we played dress-up with my headscarves and wig. When I was too tired to scoop him up and chase our dogs around the house, the two of us twirled (slowly) in the living room. Reading became a favorite shared pastime because we could do it lying down.

As my treatment progressed, I realized I was no longer trying to be strong for my son; I was strong because of him. Even on my worst days — flooded with anxiety, fatigue, and discomfort — I forced myself to calm the rush of unpleasantries when he entered to room. In that way, he sheltered me. I overflow with gratitude when I think about my care team and modern medicine — they helped save my life. But my son rescued my spirit.


Anna Harris-Parker is an Associate Professor of English at Augusta University and the author of the poetry chapbook Dress. She lives in Georgia with her family.