November 18, 2014
“You need a needle biopsy,” said the woman in the white laboratory coat.
I went dizzy. My first thought: Get me a male doctor. Here I was an outspoken career woman with a secret: At my most vulnerable, I craved XY chromosomes.
I’d always been physician-phobic, a terror I’d only overcome when I’d alerted male practitioners in advance that I was the worst patient in history. Dr. Cherry, my long-time gynecologist, chatted with me about his book deals during exams to relax me. The endodontist shooting me with Novocaine for root canals gave me laughing gas, letting me sing along to the Bob Dylan playing on his iPod to drown out the drill. My eye doctor, an Orthodox Jew, shared his thriller movie idea: microfiche hidden in the Hasidic spy’s eye. Along from humoring my craziness, I now saw their connection: masculinity.
Ironically I’d linked my medical madness to growing up in the Midwest among a family of brilliant doctors: my sardonic father (I like to think of him as a Jewish Dr. House) and my brothers. Calves’ esophagi were dissected in the kitchen sink. “The Disease Game” was played during dinner. (“Forty-two-year-old refugee vomiting blood,” Dad called out. “Schistosomiasis,” my brother Brian answered. “Pass the potatoes.”) I ate alone, homesick in my own bedroom. Brian became a trauma surgeon.
For longevity, my dad and brothers had warned me to “avoid doctors, hospitals, and medicine”—only half-joking. Still, I’d been happy to oblige. I’d just turned 50. I’d quit smoking and drinking a decade earlier. Aside from a back injury from kickboxing, I felt as young and healthy as my college students. Yet my father deemed essential the annual mammogram because both his late mother and sister died of breast cancer (I’d surmised this was what inspired him to go to med school).
“Go get that biopsy right away!” Dad yelled. “It’s stupid to procrastinate.”
“You know why you can’t be rational on the subject, right?” I asked. “I read most lines of the disease are through the mother, not the father. Mom never had it. I’m not high risk.”
“Even if it’s malignant, you won’t die of this,” said Brian, his idea of reassurance.
I called a renowned Manhattan oncologist, Dr. Michaels. He’d been administering annual ultrasounds since 2006, because the scans of my dense breasts were coming back fuzzy. Now I asked him about the woman in the white coat who’d appeared instead of the male radiologist he’d recommended. Dr. Michaels said they often switched doctors at the imaging center—filled with specialists in dozens of screening rooms—to keep it running smoothly. But the problem with medical tests was that they yielded more tests: My mammography led to ultrasounds and now biopsies. And needles were my nightmare. I was petrified to not know the name, email, or number of the doctor planning to puncture me. I wanted Dr. Michaels, a surgical oncologist I admired, to do it. I called dad for a second opinion, one that was free—but fraught.
“Don’t be an idiot! You need a stereotactic biopsy. Michaels only does the surgical kind in the hospital, where they put you out,” Dad told me.
I was confused. “I want to be out so I don’t feel anything.”
“Surgery with anesthetic is too invasive. You’d need an IV and they’d take blood anyway,” he snapped. “Just do the needle biopsy.”
Dr. Michaels, Dad and brothers all agreed. Four opinions from four male doctors I respected outweighed my neurosis. “Isn’t there a specialist you know I can talk to first?” I begged Dr. Michaels, my hands sweating. “Someone you can warn that I might freak out?”
Waiting to write down his number, it turned out to be another her.
“Can you recommend a man?”
“This is the top doctor I sent my wife to,” he said.
I was frozen. Dr. Michaels obviously had confidence in her. Doing research, I discovered this new radiology ace had my first name, my age, my religion, with an office closer to me. Why was I hesitant to see a female doctor for a female problem? I put myself on the proverbial couch, and realized what it was about: I wanted Dad to save me. I theorized: To get through the rigorous intense scientific training, you’d have to be tough. I was afraid that a medicine woman would be less likely to comfort a scared female than a medicine man. I’d once had a bad experience with a female gynecologist I’d found cold. I rationalized: 95 percent of my healers had been male, even though I’d loved my woman shrink when I was in grad school. (So I’d trust feminine physicians with my brain, but not my body?) Ultimately, I decided that pushing for a male doctor was like rejecting myself, and all I stood for.
After all, I always thought of myself as a feminist. I’m politically liberal, I did charity, mentored protégés from all backgrounds, wore black not pink, hated skinny Vogue fashion inanity and reality-TV cat fights. Like Beyoncé, I celebrated the F-word and equality while loving men and my marriage. Now suddenly my self-image was challenged.
In 2013, 46 percent of U.S. medical school students were female, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, a number I applauded. In fact, there were more women OB-GYNs than men. I knew younger women, used to these ratios, who demanded only female doctors. With a graduate degree and pride in my professions, what if an editor didn’t hire me, or somebody wouldn’t take my class, because of my sex? It would be prehistoric, misogynistic, ridiculous.
I called the female radiology specialist with my moniker. Reading my films, she felt I needed THREE biopsies, two areas nobody else had questioned. “Let’s be extra careful,” she said calmly. I flipped, confessing that procedures involving needles made me panic. She stayed on the phone with me, saying I could take Xanax and listen to music.
“What if I faint?” I asked.
“No problem, you’ll be lying down,” she laughed.
At least she heard me and had a sense of humor. After hanging up, I downloaded a death playlist on my iPhone: Stevie Wonder, Stones, Dylan. All men again! I feminized with Amy Winehouse, Macy Gray, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
“Nobody dies from biopsies,” Dad told me.
“What about Joan Rivers?”
“That’s why you’re not getting any anesthetic or using your own doctor,” he said.
That night I had a fight with my husband, who’d hired an acupuncturist to work on his sore back that weekend. I insisted he postpone his weirdly timed needle therapy in our home until I survived my own skin invasions. He came with me, reading a thriller in the waiting room.
While it was as miserable as expected, this new Susan in my life was fast, thorough, gentle and kind during the two-hour triple testing. She was pretty, had long hair like me, wore funky beige high-heeled ankle boots and let me croon loudly—dumb reasons, I realized, that made me like her. She was extremely competent, calling the next day with results: Two biopsies were benign, but one showed “an LCIS,” a low-grade risk. “Let’s see what your oncologist says.”
“Twenty years ago, this could have meant a double mastectomy,” Dad told me.
Was that supposed to make me feel better?
Dr. Michael’s verdict was: another test, a worse kind that entailed getting a needle stuck in my breast at Susan’s office and then—with the needle still taped to me—traveling 50 blocks to his hospital for the rest. Sweating, I lay on the floor, trying to breathe. Between my worry, sleeplessness, Xanax hangover and attempt to overcome my fears, I already felt I’d died and been resurrected, and it wasn’t over. I wasn’t going to biopsy myself to death. I wanted another opinion: Susan’s! I trusted her. I called my namesake doctor who was responsive, calling me back within the hour.
“Monitoring with an M.R.I. or mammogram in six months is a common option,” she offered. I felt so relieved.
While healing from three black-and-blue scars on my chest, I was thankful for my new female doctor, my old family and husband, and my ongoing health insurance. I swore I’d be kinder to all of my students, sent a donation to the foundation to fight the cancer that killed my close friend Barb at 50, vowed to eat healthier and exercise better in case it helped, and cast off one more bad habit: the sexism I wasn’t even aware of.