The nightmare began when I found a lump in my left breast. I first felt it when I turned in bed. I woke up the next morning and rode four miles on my bicycle. I was in good health, and was convinced it would go away after my period.
“It’s a thick fibrous mass with a cottage cheese texture. It seems to be expanding,” I said to an ultrasound technician at the Diagnosis Center for Women in South Miami. I was there for my first mammogram.
The technician moved a roller connected to a sonogram back and forth over my breast. She was staring at black-and-gray deformed spheres on a screen. Her silence was painful.
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“I am so sorry. I will be right back,” she said.
I thought about death. My maternal grandparents had just died at the end of last year. My poor mom, I thought: How was I going to tell her?
The technician returned to the room with the center’s director of breast imaging, Dr. Carrie Horst. They both stared at the screen. This time, Horst was holding the roller.
“I am not going to sugarcoat this. I think this is breast cancer,” Horst said. “We need to schedule a biopsy.”
The ultrasound technician tried to comfort me when Horst left the room. “These are the days when I hate my job,” she said, while she hugged me goodbye. I didn’t tell my mom I knew it was cancer. I told her it was a possibility. She still cried.
Horst called me a few days later after the biopsy confirmed her suspicion. I learned that at 33, I was not too young for breast cancer.
Horst sent me to Mercy Hospital to meet Dr. Tihesha Wilson, a surgical oncologist. She explained that the pathology report revealed I had infiltrating ductal carcinoma. There were two tumors and “several smaller masses present in a satellite configuration” — about 3.5 inches in total.
“It’s going to be a tough year,” Wilson said. “You have to stay positive, and know that you are going to survive this. Many women have.”
She explained the course of treatment. It would feel like torture in a remote prison. She handed me a tissue box. I didn’t cry. I was numb. She gave me a hug.
After a PET-CT scan and an MRI, I visited Baptist Hospital’s Dr. Robert DerHagopian for a second opinion. He said a lymph node, which tested positive for metastatic carcinoma, would place my case at a stage 3a. The highest stage (4) compromises other organs.
“You’re going to be OK,’’ he said, as he hugged me goodbye.
I knew what cancer patients looked like. My long black hair was going to fall out, so I decided to get it cut. It was nearly down to my waist. It was the prettiest it had ever been — thick, beautiful and shiny. The thought that it would make a good wig for a little girl or a teen after I donated it to Locks of Love gave me strength, even though I knew that the organization sells some of the donated hair to cover costs.
A friend cut off my ponytail, before Carolyn Duffy, of Nue Studios in Wynwood, sculpted a cut that made me feel like I had been made for short hair.
“I can’t hide behind my hair anymore,” I said, as I left the hair salon looking like Tinkerbell.
“There is no reason for you to hide,” said Duffy, who gave me a hug.
It wasn’t until I was seated in the passenger seat of my brother’s car at a South Beach stoplight that reality hit. It had usually been shoes that caught my eye, but now I was staring at an aqua-and-black fedora. The woman wearing it waved and smiled. I didn’t want to be rude, so I waved back thinking she had mistaken me for somebody else.
What followed was painful. I heard her say, as she crossed the dark street, “I thought it was a guy.” Her friends laughed at her.
No one had ever questioned my femininity. Women had stared at me, because they liked my shoes, or my clothes caught their attention. Never because they thought I was a man. I got out of the car and speedwalked toward the beach.
I crossed streets recklessly, tears rolling down my face. On Collins Avenue, I stopped a woman with a shaved head. I explained my situation and asked her about hers.
“I shave it for fun. It’s my look,” said Muriel Amisodar, 40, who hails from Canada. “Without hair, my face is always glowing.”
She exuded confidence.
“You be proud of your beauty when the hair falls,” Amisodar said, before hugging me goodbye.
I promised I would try.
Andrea Torres is a multimedia producer for The Miami Herald. Look for her stories on MiamiHerald.com/health.