Rewriting Illness

I can pinpoint the date, the time, the square foot of couch on which I was sitting, the motion of my left hand slipping into my right armpit. June 9, 2017, shortly after saying goodnight to a dear young friend who had come for dinner. The apartment on West End Avenue. James in the bedroom, two rooms away. I crossed my left arm over my chest and stuck it in my armpit, and there it was.

Man at the Door

For several weeks I had been feeling something weird inside what’s called the shoulder girdle, a busy intersection, the convergence of several of the body’s major highways. It was a vague sensation in the vicinity of the hinge of my underarm. Sometimes I was aware of it and mostly I wasn’t, and when I noticed it, it never hurt. I hadn’t thought to mention it to James or to touch it because I didn’t think there would be anything to feel, it was so indistinct, as though it might have been a tiny pellet floating inside me.

The sensation of encountering a shape so definitive, so solid—when I had expected nothing—was an electric charge, a cartoon of a character putting her finger in a light socket. I knew in an instant that it could be gravely dangerous, like the proverbial man showing up at the door with a gun—Raymond Chandler’s advice for how to create tension in a detective story. The gun was aimed right at me.

If I added up the hours I had spent anticipating the moment I’d feel a lump where no lump should be, it’d be in the high two figures. I had never compared notes with friends about their levels of anxiety around this particular imaginary moment, but I knew my own fears were extreme. I had braced, with the manic energy of a crazed Roz Chast character, for monthly self-breast exams, the daily exams leading up to the yearly mammograms, the nausea of waiting, back when we had to, for letters in the mail with their results, the pelvic exams, sonograms for this and that, and attempts to interpret the looks on the faces of technicians and doctors as they snapped pictures and pushed and pinched my insides. Weeks of worry, Mobius strips of fear.

I’m here to say that the moment turns out to be every bit as terrifying as I had always imagined it would be.

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