I was wrestling myself into a pair of brown opaque tights when I noticed the lump. It wasn’t terribly large. But to me, it looked huge, perched on the front arch of my ankle when I pointed my toe. If I stood flat-footed, it disappeared, receding between two tendons, hidden from sight.
I finished dressing and didn’t think too much more about it. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t go away. And when I did notice it, I just thought it was ugly. I Googled for an answer.
So I went to the doctor. It was a late appointment after work. She was tired. I was tired. “It’s a…oh, I’m blanking,” she said.
“A ganglion cyst?” I asked.
“Yes, a ganglion cyst. You don’t have to do anything about it. It’s not dangerous. Unless you don’t like how it looks.”
So I went home, tucking my vanity away like the cyst folded itself into the recesses of muscle and tendon. It just seemed like another indignity of aging, even though ganglion cysts were supposed to be the purview of young women, sprouting mysteriously along fingers, wrists, the backs of hands, feet, and yes, ankles. An image came back to me: sitting at the kitchen table of a high school friend, talking to his older sister, my eyes riveted to the strange egg-like protrusion on the back of her right hand.
Was my ankle lump the same thing? I hated its smooth pebble-like contours, how it moved freely on what appeared to be the surface of my bone, never straying too far from where it seemed to be tethered.
I wanted it gone.
I marched my vanity to an orthopedic surgeon. He X-rayed my foot. The lump was soft tissue. It might be a ganglion cyst. It might be something else, maybe a large-cell tumor of the tendon sheath. Maybe not. He sent me for an MRI. I asked what he thought it was.
Off I went. When the orthopedist called, he said the radiologist wanted me to do an MRI with contrast. I asked why. He said it might be something else. I should have known something was up, that they didn’t like what they had seen. So I went for another MRI, right before Thanksgiving.
The day after the holiday, my husband, Avrom, and I were walking around Rockland Lake. I’d just run in the Turkey Trot, a five-mile run around it the day before and was feeling pretty good—well exercised for a holiday weekend of eating excess.
My cell phone rang. It was the orthopedist.
“The radiologist thinks he sees some malignancy. I want you to see an orthopedic oncologist.” He gave me the name and said he’d call the doctor to let him know I’d be scheduling an appointment.
I didn’t make much sense of this. How can this pebble underneath my skin be a malignant tumor? The sky is still blue. The lake is clear. I ran five miles yesterday. But my world just divided itself into before and after.
Malignant is not a word anyone wants to hear. I made another appointment with Dr. Google, which was probably not a good idea in retrospect. The first thing that came up was a synovial sarcoma, a very aggressive cancer of the soft tissue. The outcomes weren’t good, with death within a year being the worst and amputation being the best.
The first thought I had, as I looked at the grim image of an amputated foot left on the operating table, like some leftover piece of meat, was that I wouldn’t get to see my daughter, Lily, 19, get married. I don’t know why the fleeting image of her as a bride without her mother passed through my head. There is no wedding in sight. I only recently found out she even has a boyfriend. I thought about my son Nathan’s upcoming college graduation and what it would be like not to be in the photos. He talks sometimes about going on for a PhD. Would I not see that? I can tell you the idea of a wedding or a graduation, future simchas, grandchildren that might take place at some point in a future that didn’t include me was physically painful.
It was the only time I cried.
Avrom and I met the oncologist, a muscular man, with an all-American confidence, who implicitly inspired trust. He didn’t seem to think it was cancerous, but it should be removed because if it were to grow, it could attach itself to the bone and cause problems later. From the images it seemed to be a large-cell tumor of the tendon sheath, one of the things my orthopedist had mentioned. They are benign, he said, but if it proved to be malignant, they would remove it and I’d probably have some localized radiation. It seemed less scary; or at least like I wouldn’t be leaving my foot behind on the operating table. I started erasing images of exercising on a treadmill, my prosthetic foot clacking as I moved.
I scheduled surgery for first thing on a Friday morning. We drove in the dark to Hackensack Hospital in New Jersey. When I surfaced from the anesthesia, Avrom joked they’d sewn my foot on the right way around. Gee, thanks.
The surgeon said it looked like a fibroma of the tendon sheath, a different kind of benign tumor. I felt relieved; they’d have the full pathology when I came to get the stitches out in 10 days.
Now I was less terrified. I hobbled around on an ugly open-toed boot held with Velcro straps to my foot and dubbed myself “Frankenfoot,” as I clumped down the stairs. I pushed the image of the motherless bride to the far corner of my mind, and instead kvetched about not being able to go to the gym.
Today, I had my stitches removed. There’s a small scar, about a half-inch long on the front of my ankle, covered in steri-strips. I am relieved. I consider myself to be a healthy person. I exercise six days a week; when I get my blood work done, my numbers are great. This episode had really shaken that view of myself.
I know that as I age, my body will inevitably fail me. Maybe not all at once, maybe not catastrophically, but over time, bit by bit. It’s like my washing machine that needs replacing. It works fine—most of the time. But there are some days when the dishes just don’t seem all that clean and the top rack falls off its tracks and well, it just doesn’t work like it used to. Nor do I.
On the up side, I discovered the evolutionary advantage of vanity—I never would have gotten this thing attended to had I not hated how it looked when I was wearing high heels. And that I’m really glad to be celebrating my 54th birthday tomorrow.
Best wishes for a happy and most of all, healthy, new year.