Visitors tiptoe through the tulips in Dutch virus test, wrote Mike Corder recently for the AP, documenting the opening of the famed Keukenhof Gardens for a lucky 5,000 people. It is one of hundreds of public venues that the Dutch government has allowed to reopen under strict conditions to evaluate whether rapid testing can safely help the country ease coronavirus restrictions amid rising levels of vaccinations and warmer weather.
This is a gift. It feels great today. It is beautiful weather anyway … but to walk through the tulips is fantastic!
On May 5, 2019, we were scheduled to spend the day at Keukenhof Gardens when our cruise ship stopped in Amsterdam for the day before sailing on to Norway to complete a three-week cross-Atlantic voyage. We had missed the brief tulip season when we were in Amsterdam 2018, catching glimpses of the flowers only at the floating market during our week-long stay, so we’re really looking forward to seeing the 7 million tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and myriad other flowers meticulously hand-planted throughout Keukenhof’s manicured lawns by a small army of gardeners.
But, through one of the zillion of timing miracles that allow me to tell you this today, we were not among the tulips on May 5, 2019, when I fainted on an Amsterdam sidewalk. We were outside a pharmacy getting medication for my husband’s bronchitis. Quick response by EMTs had me in an ER within minutes just as my heart stopped. I had ruptured an undiagnosed aneurysm. OLVG Hospital’s expert intervention sealed the leak, but I would be in the ICU for six weeks as my body struggled to survive, and another six weeks in the gastroenterology unit as I slowly regained movement of my wasted limbs.
It’s been quite the two years. In 2019, I survived a ruptured aneurysm. As I completed my recovery in early 2020, the world went into pandemic lockdown, and both my husband and I — both high risk — have lived apart from much of the world for nearly a year.
But February delivered three pieces of good news that will carry us forward into whatever 2021 has in store.
My doctor pronounced me in excellent shape.
My husband and I are fully vaccinated.
I don’t have breast cancer.
Let me say a few words about that final item, and the doctors that carried me there.
Like most of us, I delayed many medical appointments last year. When I did get in to see my gynecologist in early January, she identified a small mass in one of my breasts. I have “dense breasts,” which is to say that it’s never easy to figure out which lump is normal and which might mean trouble According to the CDC, about half of all women age 40 and above are in this category. Dr. K gave me orders for a mammogram and an ultrasound, and an appointment with a “breast doctor” to review the radiology report. I realized this meant a breast cancer doctor.
I wasn’t that worried, but I was pissed off. Adding yet another medical situation to these challenging two years was too much. I didn’t want another doctor in my e-Rolodex, thank you very much. Unfair. Boo-hoo. Etcetera.
I allowed myself to pout for a couple of days, listened to wise people who reminded me that life doesn’t work that way, and made my appointments.
The imaging center radiologist looked at the images as the technician put me through my paces. She was reassuring: the tissue looked no different from other fatty breast tissue. Several days later, I received the written report. In black and white, it said “Not cancer.” Good news. If I hadn’t already scheduled an appointment with the breast surgeon, that would have been that.
However, as I discovered during my long hospital stay in Amsterdam, I am a super-compliant patient, and so I gathered my records and prepared for a brief conversation with the next doctor along the lines of “Sorry to waste your time, never mind.”
The Breast Surgeon
But that’s not the conversation we had.
About 16 percent of breast cancers do not show up on a mammogram or ultrasound. If you were sure the lump wasn’t new, we’d let this go for six months. But, you are not sure, and I don’t want to be wrong. A biopsy will tell me for sure what we’re dealing with. It’s your choice.
I realized that I hadn’t survived, recovered, and thrived in these past two years just to hope for the best. I scheduled the surgery.
The Primary Care Doctor
It’s called a lumpectomy when the tumor is cancer, but an excisional breast biopsy when the substance removed is unknown. Either way, it’s surgery, and I had to be deemed healthy enough to withstand the process.
The hours that I spent getting evaluated — in-person instead of on the telephone for the first time since March — were the most lively, interactive, and positive of the past year. Every interaction affirmed my progress in recovery. Big item in the silver lining category.
The Breast Surgeon
At 7:45 AM the Monday following Valentine’s Day, Dr. M. marked up my breast. “Nice timing for Valentine’s Day,” I said. “Yeah, just felt you up,” she quipped back. I laughed as I was wheeled into the operating room in the outpatient facility, and then it was over. Dr. M called my husband to say that it looked like plain old fatty tissue. We were home by 10.
I spent that day and the next icing, resting, and binging on Netflix. I had no pain, no swelling, because the cut was tiny and I’d also followed the guidelines to get a super-supportive sports bra. The Syrokan runs a little small but lives up to the hype. When I showed my husband the incision, I realized we were commemorating Mardi Gras with the New Orleans tradition of “flashing,” sans beads. Eventually, I turned off Netflix and got back to walking: a mile, two, four.
One week later, Dr. M showed me the pathology report: Benign, it said. Benign fibrofatty mammary parenchyma, a lipoma, a benign fat tumor. Same material as the rest of the breast, just encased in material that makes it feel more dense, like chicken fat in a baggie. In six months, I’ll do another mammogram for a new baseline. That’s it.
Tears came to my eyes. They still do as I realize, once again, how grateful I am to be well, once again.
Be better about documenting what’s going on in my body. Don’t put off medical appointments — my husband and I will be back in doctors’ offices in mid-March. Do what they tell you to do. And keep going, every day, with something that will make you stronger: walk, do yoga, do the polka, lift weights. It really doesn’t matter what, just keep moving. It helps if it’s kinda fun.
And this from USA Today’s Adrianna Rodriguez: Doctors recommend patients schedule their mammogram before receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, or space out the two appointments, after some women have been mistaking swollen lymph nodes, a side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine, for breast lumps.
Here’s to our health, dear readers! Enjoy the sights and sounds of early morning in our backyard.