The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

How the Berating Surgeon Lost Her Power Over Me

by Erin PerkinsSurvivor, Breast CancerJanuary 11, 2024View more posts from Erin Perkins

Before the vaccine was available to the layperson, when the CDC was recommending double masking in public, in January of 2021, I attended my diagnostic breast biopsy alone. Double masked and still carrying the weight of my postpartum anxiety that caused a debilitating fear of germs, I entered the small, stuffy waiting room, forced to sit very close to my nervous comrades. We all waited for our names, trying desperately not to breathe one another’s air. When my name was called, I popped up and began my comedic chattiness that always accompanies me when I am afraid. My fearful extra chatter was met with silence and straight faces from both the surgeon and her nurse. No warmth or reassurance. Aside from their coldness, I also noted fearfully, that neither one of them was double-masked, and the masks they were wearing were homemade and falling off. 

I had never felt more uncomfortable or alone, and that’s when the surgeon began her berating. 

As I sat on the edge of the bed in the visibly dirty room in my paper shirt, she started in by asking me about the medications I listed on my intake paperwork. “How old is your baby?” she asked without emotion or kindness. I answered that my son was two-and-a-half years old. To which, she flippantly retorted, “So why are you taking a prenatal vitamin?” I told her I was still nursing. “I will stop before he is three for sure, we just have had such a sweet time, and my daughter quit nursing so early; it’s just hard to stop,” I added through the palpable discomfort. She snapped back, “Oh, you have to stop. I mean you should have stopped already, but after this biopsy, you won’t be able to nurse on the right side anymore.” My fears and discomfort finally gave way to tears, and I never stopped crying from that moment on. The sudden loss she was conveying was unbearable to me. She kept going, “Breasts are not for babies anyway. There are no benefits to breastfeeding after colostrum. I didn’t breastfeed any of my kids. You definitely shouldn’t be doing it if he is a toddler. You should really stop immediately. He gets no benefit from what you are doing, and besides you can’t do it again after this anyway. So you’ll need to stop.”

I’m on my side now on the short doctor’s table, in the dirty room, weeping in my paper shirt. She is telling me in between her rants that are causing me to completely lose it mentally, that the needle will feel like a COVID vaccine. I say through my tears, “Oh, I haven’t been offered the vaccine yet.” She says, “Oh I have, but I refused it,” her mask still sliding off of her nose as she performs the core needle biopsy on my right breast and I continue weeping. The nurse was silent. She didn’t so much as hold my hand.

“Okay,” she says, “that about does it. Set up your follow-up appointment for three days from now, and remember not to nurse again. If your biopsy comes back positive, we will biopsy your suspicious lymph node, and take the mass out, if not, we may take the mass out anyway. Have a great day.” 

I can’t even breathe I’m crying so hard, meanwhile, she never addresses my tears or stops her berating. I cried so much the scheduler asked me if I needed a hug, but due to my fear of germs and COVID, I hesitatingly declined. I was barely able to compose myself to call two friends who had been Le Leche League leaders, meaning they knew a ton about breastfeeding, and helped people with their questions and issues. Through my blubbering, I was able to ask them if there was truth to my surgeon’s claims that I could never nurse again. “Of course, you can,” they both re-assured me. “The only thing that may happen is that twinges of blood will be in the milk, and your son may refuse, but you can get it out and then try again.” I took my first deep breath since I entered that surgeon’s office, and I decided in that moment I would never see that surgeon again. I wasn’t sure how this worked, of course—she held the key to me knowing whether I had cancer or not, but I decided that was a task to sort out a different day. 

I got home and nursed my sweet son, Noah, crying tears of relief and immense sadness. I knew the truth was if the biopsy confirmed cancer, I would have to stop nursing, and that that would be soon. But it wasn’t that day, and he and I could enjoy our gifted bond a little longer. I never intended to nurse him as long as I did, and every day I am grateful for how long we had, yet, as I am sure all of us who enter Cancerland can agree that none of us want to hear that something we cherish is over suddenly and that we have zero say in the matter. Especially not when we are getting our first core needle biopsy done to determine whether we have cancer alone in a pandemic as a young mom.

If we want to play every cancer muggle’s favorite game, the “at least” game, then at least I learned how to fire my first care team. At least I learned how to know when changing doctors was necessary. At least I learned how it felt to know for sure. Unfortunately, when I shared my decision armed with confidence, I received pushback from my primary care doctor, the surgeon’s nurse, and the surgeon herself. Since she had the keys to the answer of cancer or not, I had to at least take a call from the surgeon to learn the results of my biopsy. On the phone, she took the opportunity to ask me why I fired her without missing a beat, directly after delivering the news that I did in fact have invasive ductal carcinoma in my breast. While it felt like the room was spinning, that the floor gave way, that there was no breath in my lungs, through more tears, I was able to tell her the truth. She was short with me then and wished me good luck before abruptly hanging up the phone. The truth was she could not have made me feel more uncomfortable and alone, less seen, less important, less of a human, in the hardest, most intense, and fearful moments of my life. The truth was I could not look at her or speak to her ever again even if the push-backers claimed she was my area’s most skilled breast surgeon. I knew, without a doubt, that I would rather have a visible scar on my chest than any more invisible scars on my soul caused by her terrible candor and bedside manner.

It took me two years from that biopsy day to be able to write her the review she deserved. To be able to stand up for my local community and warn them what they would be signing up for if they decided to go with the most skilled breast surgeon in the area. I was kind in my review, short, and truthful. I simply said, “You just need to know that if you are emotional at all, you may want to consider seeing a different surgeon.” I didn’t go into detail or berate her like she did me. I cried as I sent it, the last puzzle piece placed together to help me heal from the wounds she caused. 

Minutes later my phone chimed that she had replied! “No way,” I said out loud, “the nerve on this lady.” But I never read it, and I never will. Her words have no hold on me anymore. She gets no power back, not from me.

Read more of Erin’s story by checking out her substack here.

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