Shirley RodriguezSofia Quintero is a Puerto Rican-Dominican author, filmmaker and educator and most recently, cancer warrior. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2012. Each week, she'll be sharing her story here.
"I wouldn't push if this were routine," I told the woman at the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention in Harlem. "But I found something that concerns me." She gave me an appointment for a mammogram on December 21, 2011. I told no one.
The second mammogram I had done in early January revealed two additional lumps, one in the right breast. Yet when the surgeon told me she could fit in a biopsy the next day I asked, "What do you have after that?" I had already missed Day 2 of a six-day shoot for this and I was scheduled to be second assistant director the next day. Stop messin' around, Fi! I thought to myself. "Never mind. What time tomorrow?"
Now I have to tell my executive producer, and how do I tell him and not my parents? Of course, they insisted on accompanying me. Minor procedure or not, toughing it out alone on the subway was not an option.
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I lay topless on the examining table with my left arm over my head, angling on my right side. As the nurse swabbed my left breast with a numbing agent, my mind wandered to the film set where I believed I should be wrangling extras. The surgeon already deemed the right lump from the mammogram to be nothing. Finally, some definitive news, and it's good!
My mind then began to wonder and contemplate the statistics. What's the likelihood that the lumps in my left breast, too, will be nothing? "One out of eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer during her lifetime," say all the pamphlets in the waiting room.
Damn, that sounds high.
I remind myself to breathe deeply. It works; the surgeon injects my breast with a local anesthesia, and I don't feel a thing. "We're taking four samples of each one," she says. "This'll be over in 15 minutes." That, too, comforts me. She warns me that the loud click the needle makes as it extracts the sample may be unsettling and promises to let me know it's coming. When I hear it, it sounds like someone slamming an industrial-strength stapler. When the needle clips the tumor, my breast vibrates.
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One out of eight? That's too damn prevalent. Almost…ordinary.
I don't like being ordinary.
And in many ways I'm not. I graduated from 'Hood High to earn two degrees from an Ivy League university. At the age of 25, I served as the chief of staff to the first Latina elected to the New York City Council. I have published five novels and twice as many short stories and novellas from erotica to noir. I co-founded an award-winning nonprofit to identify, develop, and support women of color who wanted to produce entertainment that promoted social justice, creating the kind of organization I wish had existed when I was young. I have traveled from Paris to Palestine and have performed burlesque and standup.
The cost of extraordinariness, however, was the everyday joys of an average life. I had yet to marry. I had no children. I had not been able to maintain a home of my own. All these desirable experiences of ordinariness evaded me. How could I accomplish things that many only fantasized about and still feel like I was missing out on something? When I discovered the lump in my left breast, I couldn't shake the feeling that the Universe was giving me a hard kick in the ass. Not because I had not suffered and sacrificed, but because I had yet to learn from my challenges to step fully into my authenticity.
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We always know the truth because the body is a terrible liar. On January 16 th of this year, I was forced to finally listen to mine. "The smaller one that we discovered on the mammogram was nothing," says the surgeon. "But the one you found, I'm sorry, it's cancer."
With those words, I became one in eight. I was common in a way that no woman should ever be.
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