View from the Hill
Five People You Meet On The Way To A Biopsy
By Catherine Durkin Robinson
Apr 17, 2011 - 9:23:13 AM

LOS ANGELES—What is the proper reaction to a tumor the size of a jelly bean in my right breast? About 950,000 books purport to tell me, but it’s hard to know for sure.


Jelly Beans.
Different people handle things differently. For some, happy hour makes everything better. For others, seclusion and silence offer the best medicine. No two solutions look alike.


Perhaps then we can agree on how not to react. Yelling at a smoker that he/she should be the one with “lumpy boobs” or spitting on a skinny woman’s double cheeseburger will not win me any friends, only a restraining order or two.

The best reaction is probably the one that leaves me feeling strong and secure. In the end, I want to feel like I can take on the world and any disease that dares to mess with me.

One part bitterness, three parts humor ”“ that’s how I react to almost everything life throws my way. It worked when I had to wear a training bra until junior year in high school. It worked during college before I found a sober hair stylist. This demeanor worked best of all during those at-home mom years when my only friends were Elmo and an overeager washing machine. So I see no reason to alter my outlook now.

When telling people about an upcoming biopsy, I’ve found their reactions vary and aren’t always appropriate. They generally fall into five distinct categories.


The Worrier
The Worrier: This little ball of sunshine doesn’t even try to make me feel better. He is the acquaintance who winced when I told him the news. Then he sighed and made awful clucking sounds with his teeth.

My neighbor wondered aloud “about the children.”


One lifelong friend shakes his head every time I say, “I’m fine.”


“You can’t possibly be,” he says with his eyes.


Another read the news that my lump was a “4 out of 6” when ranked for concern, but processed the information as “Stage 4” and “two years to live.”


Put the tequila down, people.

The Prayer
The Prayer: This character comes in two types. One is authentic and the other scary.


Authentic: My uncle sent a booklet to his favorite Jewish niece from St. Ann’s Basilica along with a note saying that his prayers were offered on bricks dedicated to the Walsh and Durkin families. My sister mentioned me in her rosary group and stopped rolling her eyes for two whole weeks. Mom dedicated a mass to my healing, but didn’t make me attend.


Despite our different belief systems, their prayers and invocations represent love. Thankfully, we all believe in that.


Scary: She enjoys fire, brimstone and lectures about how tumors are God’s will and a blessing.



According to this church lady, setbacks allow us to appreciate suffering. Illness transforms victims into role models and disease reminds us that Hell is a real possibility. God has a plan and all.


I smile and nod because that always encourages crazy talk, and then I tell her that I’m pretty sure God thinks illness and disease sucks, just like the rest of us.


Think Positive Lady
Think Positive Lady: Everything is going to be fine if I would simply add more blueberries to my yogurt in the morning before yoga and wash it down with nine cups of green tea. Plus a good colon cleansing couldn’t hurt.


I love this smelly girl and her dreadlocks. Really I do, but if she encourages me to mumble, “I am healing, I am healed” one more time in the vitamin aisle of my favorite nutrition store, Granola Girl is getting a bottle of wheat germ upside the head.


The One-Upper
The One-Upper: It doesn’t matter what I’ve got goin’ on ”“ this lady has me beat. She will see my hypothyroidism and raise me a goiter the size of Delaware. And don’t get her started on her bunion.


Did I hear about her daughter? She had a bilateral mastectomy three years ago and just finished her final reconstruction surgery. Those new breasts look fabulous, even without nipples.


That’s right. I don’t know suffering. I’ll try not to scream later that night when my nightmares feature giant, naked Barbie dolls chasing me down the hall.

Not So Secretly Smug. Photos by Jocelyn Holt
Not so Secretly Smug: This person (read: Dad) can be summed up in the following conversation:


Dad: “How’s that diet and exercise workin’ for you?”


Me: “I read somewhere that healthy patients recover quicker than those who aren’t

in shape. They have an easier time during treatment as well.”


Dad: “Eat a steak. You’ll feel better.”


Me: “I doubt that.”


Dad: “Look at me. I just ate three bacon and cheese sandwiches, plus a nice, cold beer. I feel fine.”


Me: “Your pill box begs to differ.”




Me: (leaning over the Barcalounger) “Are you ignoring me?”


Mom: (from the kitchen) “No sweetheart. He fell asleep.”

I try to remember that those who react are wishing me the best no matter how it comes across. A strong foundation of support and love lies underneath the neuroses, tics, sighs and prayers. Yes, reactions vary and aren’t always appropriate; but whether you write or call, text or email, cry or laugh, reaching out to those who are sick and expressing concern is a mitzvah.


And I will never forget it. 






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