A/N: No mystery, no evil bad guys, no death-bed vigils; just a sappy little Christmas story I wrote a few years ago! :-)
Laura Hardy glanced at her watch and sighed, tapping her foot impatiently. With only a week to go before Christmas she didn't have time to wait in some doctor's office until he decided to grace her with his presence. She'd already had her annual exam and was now waiting for the obligatory meeting with the doctor where he asked if she had any questions, she replied no and was on her way. Checking her watch again, she almost wanted to leave him a note – 'No questions. Gotta run! Have a nice holiday!' – and then chuckled to herself. There was no question that her younger son, Joe, got his impatience from her; although he had taken it to a whole new level!
Sighing again, she pulled out her well-worn Christmas list. She only had two more things to buy for the family the Hardys had 'adopted' this year and she'd be done with her shopping. But there was that sweater she'd seen in the mall that was the exact same shade of blue as Joe's eyes…
Smiling, she grabbed a pen and added it to the list, along with a new computer program Frank had mentioned the previous evening at dinner. Her husband, Fenton, would say she was spoiling the boys but she decided if ever they needed spoiling it was now.
Frank had started his freshman year at Bayport University in September at the same time Joe, a year younger, began his senior year at Bayport High. Frank had decided he wanted to live on campus. At nineteen, he was ready to test his independence and excited to be living away from home for the first time – even if it was only thirty minutes away!
Laura was thrilled for Frank, recalling how much she had enjoyed living in the dorms when she was in college. It was an exciting time for a young adult and she wanted her son to experience everything college had to offer in a way that simply couldn't be done living off campus. Yet while she was happy for Frank to be embarking on the next phase in his life, she was also worried about Joe; a worry that turned out to be justified.
Growing up, her sons had been exceptionally close. They had a special bond that was hard to describe and while Laura had been grateful for their closeness, she also feared what would happen when it came time for Frank to move on. It was obvious to anyone that Frank doted on his younger brother and had a strong protective instinct towards him. As a child Joe had worshipped his older brother. As they got older Joe realized, of course, that his brother wasn't perfect; but he was still Joe's protector, confidant and best friend.
When Frank announced he wanted to live on campus, Joe tried to be excited for his brother, but Laura didn't miss the sadness in his eyes. It took a few weeks but Joe finally accepted Frank's decision and was genuinely happy for his brother – for a while. After a long talk with his mother, Joe realized he'd be so busy with school, studying and football, having been named team captain at the beginning of the school year, he'd barely have time to miss his brother. Assuming Frank would pop in at least once during the week for a home cooked meal and that he'd be seeing his brother on weekends, Joe was much more comfortable with the whole situation.
However, he hadn't counted on Frank getting so caught up in the whole college experience. Frank had pledged a fraternity, joined several clubs and volunteered to tutor fellow students who had quickly fallen behind under the heavy class loads. Frank also wanted to spend time with his girlfriend, Callie Shaw, who had chosen to go to New York University, an hour away from Bayport. Suddenly Frank's weekends seemed to be booked solid, leaving no time for his younger brother.
As the weeks passed, the strain seemed to be eating away at the close relationship the brothers shared, finally coming to a head in late October. Frank and Joe had gotten into a huge fight that Laura almost feared would end in physical violence. But heeding her husband's advice to let the boys work it out themselves, she remained silent, hard as it was. And sure enough, an hour later, her sons emerged from Joe's bedroom all smiles. Whatever issues they'd had were resolved and she swore they were now closer than ever. After the stress and tension of those few months, Laura had no qualms at all about spoiling her sons this holiday season.
Checking her watch yet again, she decided enough was enough. Both boys had started their winter break a few days earlier and she was thrilled to have both of them home again. Right now, spending quality family time with her husband and sons was infinitely more appealing than cooling her heels in a doctor's office. Standing up, she turned to leave just as the door to the office opened.
"I'm so sorry to keep you waiting, Mrs. Hardy," Dr. Tanninger said, closing the door behind him. "I wanted to check something before I spoke with you." He took a seat behind his desk as she returned to the chair she had just vacated.
She smiled thinly and leaned forward. "You know I really don't have any questions and I'm really pressed for time so-"
"I'm sorry Mrs. Hardy. I understand what a busy time of year this is. But I have a question for you."
Laura's eyebrows shot up in mild surprise and she settled back into the chair.
"Do you perform monthly breast self-exams?"
Laura hesitated a moment at the unexpected query. "Yes. Well, usually. I mean I try to remember but sometimes time gets away from me," she laughed nervously. "My oldest son started college this year and my youngest is a senior in high school so…" she shrugged sheepishly. "I guess I haven't been as vigilant as I should've."
Laura shifted in the seat, suddenly anxious. "Is… is there something wrong?"
"Mrs. Hardy, during the exam today I found a lump in your left breast. I was hoping you'd been doing monthly self-exams so I'd have an idea of how long it's been there and if it's gotten any bigger."
Laura stared at the doctor, stunned. "A… a lump?" she repeated hoarsely.
"When was the last time you did a self-exam?" Dr. Tanninger asked as Laura had made it obvious it hadn't been any time recently.
"Um… I… I'm not quite sure. Last summer some time, maybe?" she answered her voice shaking slightly. "Doctor… does this mean… do I have… breast cancer?"
"No, not necessarily. Not all lumps are cancerous," Tanninger said reassuringly. "It could be just a fluid-filled cyst or calcification."
Laura stared at him, suddenly wishing she weren't alone. Terrified, she'd give anything to have her husband beside her, his strong arm around her, telling her everything would be fine.
"The first step is to get you scheduled for a mammogram," the doctor continued. "I was checking with my scheduling secretary before I came in to see you. There was a cancellation for tomorrow morning. Would you be able to have it done then?"
"Tomorrow?" Laura repeated, dazed. 'Callie and Vanessa are coming over tomorrow. We're supposed to bake cookies…' she thought, picturing her sons' girlfriends. "I guess… yes, tomorrow would be fine."
"Good, good," Tanninger murmured distractedly, writing something on a prescription pad. "I'd like to find out for sure what we're dealing with before the holidays if at all possible." He looked up and smiled. "No sense having you worrying if it's nothing."
Laura gave him a strained smile in return. 'A lump in my breast? A mammogram? What if it isn't nothing?'
"But a mammogram by itself can't tell you whether or not it's cancer… can it?"
"No, I'm afraid not. But it can tell us size and shape, placement… in short, whether the lump is suspicious or not. Based on the results of the mammogram, we'll determine what the next course of action is."
"How many different courses of action are there?" Laura asked, her thoughts jerking back and forth, forcing her to listen yet trying to deny the reality.
'I don't have time for this! A lump? It's almost Christmas! No, he probably made a mistake… That sweater really did match Joe's eyes beautifully…It might not be cancer… I should stop and pick up some more sugar and flour on the way home…Why didn't I remember to do those breast exams every month?! The Rileys' Christmas party is this weekend… Oh, God, Fenton, I wish you were here…'
"If the lump doesn't appear to be anything more than a cyst, we can just watch it. You'd have to be extremely vigilant about monthly self-exams. I'd want to see you every month or so, until we know whether or not it's growing and if so, how fast."
"And what if it is 'suspicious in nature'?" Laura almost laughed out loud, suddenly having a vision of a small lump with a head, arms and legs, running from her private detective husband and their sons who aspired to be just like him. 'I wonder if I'm in shock…'
"If the mammogram suggests the lump is suspicious in nature, the next step would be to do a biopsy; either a needle biopsy or surgically, by removing the lump itself and a little of the surrounding tissue."
"And that would tell you whether it's cancer or not?"
"Yes, that would tell us if it's malignant."
"And if it is?" Laura asked. Was that her voice shaking like that?
Dr. Tanninger smiled and closed her file. "I'd prefer to at least wait for the results of the mammogram before deciding what – if any – treatment you'll need."
"If you think it could be nothing, why are you so insistent I have a mammogram tomorrow? If it's nothing, why can't it wait until after the holidays are over?" Laura suddenly morphed from disbelief straight into denial. 'This is ridiculous…there is nothing wrong with me…It's just a harmless cyst. He said so…maybe…'
"As I said, there was a cancellation for tomorrow and I thought if there was a possibility we could get this cleared up before the holidays, you could relax and enjoy them. That's really the only reason," he replied patiently.
"Oh," Laura replied, a little embarrassed. "Sorry, it's just…well, this is the last thing I expected to hear. It's a little disconcerting, that's all."
"I understand completely, Mrs. Hardy. And that is exactly why I'd like to get it cleared up as soon as we can – to give you some peace of mind." Standing up, he escorted Laura to the door of his office. Handing her the piece of paper he'd been writing on he pointed down the hall to their left. "Carol, at the reception desk will get everything set up for you. I'll call you as soon as I have the results. Should only be a day or so."
"Thank you," Laura said numbly, walking in the direction he'd indicated.
Laura's head began to swim. Three words echoed in her head with stunning clarity – lump…biopsy…malignant… When she left the house this morning her most pressing concern was whether or not she had enough sugar and flour for tomorrow's cookie bake. Now instead of trying to figure out how to keep Joe from eating all the cookie dough she was staring at the possibility of breast cancer.