It’s Monday morning. I arrive at the women’s center a few minutes before my appointed time. The small reception area I enter is familiar but it doesn’t feel warm and welcoming, though the muted colors are probably meant to be calming. It feels crowded and a little worn; too many nervous bodies have sat on the handful of chairs.
I give my name to the woman at the desk. “Take a seat. Someone will check you in shortly,” she says, and turns back to the older woman she is talking with. As I sit down I surreptitiously observe the two women seated across from me. One woman is older, heavy set. She wears a brightly colored, appliqued cotton skirt and black plastic flip-flops; from her darker complexion and dress she appears to be perhaps from Indonesia or Polynesia. She is sitting next to a woman, likely her daughter or a younger sister, who is wearing a full flowered skirt and also black flip-flops. They don’t talk much. There’s a sense of impending doom in this room that makes conversation challenging.
Adjacent to them are two women speaking rapidly in an Asian language, perhaps Chinese or Korean. I confess I am not educated enough in the ethnic subtleties to differentiate. I do not study their appearance because I would have to do so obviously and I don’t want to invade their privacy.
I glance at the woman at the counter. She is older with beautifully coiffed hair and manicured nails. Her awkward movements and the walker next to the counter indicate some physical challenges. She wears grey slacks and what appear to be expensive slippers.
A young woman – probably in her late 30s or early 40s -- enters from the admissions area with a clipboard. She has long blond hair and wears knee-high tan leather boots and a white leather jacket. She finishes filling out the paperwork on her clipboard and then begins to play nervously with her smart phone. When the technician comes to take her back for her mammogram, she drops the pen on the floor and then drops her phone. This may be her first time undergoing this procedure. But whether it’s the first time or the 20th time, it’s still uncomfortable and nerve-wracking. For me, at least, there is always a sense of foreboding, of impending doom. Ignorance is bliss.
My name is called and I step into the admissions area to confirm my registration information and show my insurance ID.
Then I go back into the waiting area. By this time the women in the floral skirts have left. My seat has been taken by the woman with the walker. This time I sit facing the door and watch as two women who appear to be Vietnamese enter. The younger, probably a teenager, is chubby and wears black tights under denim shorts and Converse tennis shoes. The woman with her is tiny and thin, wearing dark gray velour sweat pants and sweatshirt. The young woman speaks to the receptionist and it becomes clear she is interpreting for her mother.
It strikes me that the women I have seen in the past few minutes are completely different; from different cultures, different lands, different socio-economic groups, different age groups. Yet we are all brought here for the same reason and likely are all experiencing the same deep fear that this time they will find something. This time the news will be bad. I wonder how many of these women, or how many of the women who are at the clinic today, will be diagnosed with breast cancer. I have been thinking all morning that perhaps this time my family history of having a mother and an aunt die of breast cancer, a sister who has fought colon cancer and whose biopsy indicated she, at least, carries the BRCA-1 gene mutation, will catch up to me. I’ve been thinking about my mother who died at 69; they started treating the cancer when she was 66. Her sister died at 59, a few months after my mother died. I am 62. I sometimes worry I am on borrowed time. I think of friends suffering from ovarian cancer, also implicated by the BRCA-1 gene, and my dear friend Marilyn who died of thyroid cancer last August. I remember her courage in the face of all her challenges. All these thoughts have been my constant companion this morning as I drove to the clinic.
A technician comes to collect me. She tells me her name but for the life of me I can’t remember it two minutes later. It’s been a little less than a year since my last mammogram and this winter and spring I’ve been a little uneasy about an area in my left breast. Something just doesn’t feel right to me. So today, for the first time, I am doing a diagnostic mammogram. I have no idea what this entails. I will soon find out.
The technician asks me to indicate where the lump is. I explain to her that it isn’t really a lump. I’m not sure if it’s anything. It could be my imagination. Whistling in the dark? But I explain that I’ve noticed something that just doesn’t feel right in the upper left side of my breast and I thought I’d felt a thickening. I show her where; she seems to feel what I have felt and marks it with a sticky tab with a little metal BB. The fact that she also felt something simultaneously justifies my presence here and scares the hell out of me.
She takes several views – pretty standard mammograms that feel like she’s intent on flattening my breasts, one way or another. She doesn’t say anything. This, too, scares me. She sends me back to the dressing room to cool my heels for a while until the radiologist can look the results over.
I sit in the tiny olive-green room, trying to relax, trying to be comfortable. I lean my head against the wall and stretch my legs out on the bench. And I suddenly am convinced I will soon be facing some difficult decisions. I’ve wondered if I would subject my body to chemotherapy. I’ve wondered if I would have reconstructive surgery if I had to have a mastectomy. Since I was widowed almost ten years ago, I have hoped that someday I would find another good man to share my life. Somehow having breast cancer feels like a deal-breaker in a relationship. (Though to be honest I know it isn’t always; there are some truly good men out there. I hear.)
What if I only had a few months, I wonder as I sit and wait. What would I do? Greece, I think. I want to see Greece. I think about how much that would cost and realize that if I am dying it won’t matter.
The technician comes back and my heart jumps into my throat. But she only wants to tell me that the ultra-sound technician will be with me shortly. Nothing more. Okay. I’ve never had ultrasound except years ago when I was pregnant.
The ultrasound technician does come a few minutes later. I’ve probably been waiting less than 10 or 15 minutes but it has seemed like hours. During the procedure she too indicates she can tell where the spot is that I’ve indicated is of concern. As she runs the lubricated wand over the area it seems to catch on something. Yes, there it is. My heart sinks. I will try to be brave and take each day and moment as it comes, I tell myself. What will be will be. It’s all good and, in the words of the Mystic Julian of Norwich, all shall be well.
The ultrasound technician tells me she wants to show the doctor and have her confirm her findings. Here it comes, I think. But I am wrong. It didn’t come. The doctor comes in and cheerfully tells me everything looks normal. There is nothing that looks at all concerning. She says it’s good that I’ve done my previous mammograms there so they can compare. She tells me to come back in a year. I can hardly believe it. I leave a bit dazed but incredibly thankful. I whisper a quick prayer of thanks. I think fleetingly that it wasn’t my day to hear bad news, and I say another little prayer for anyone whose day did not turn out as happily as mine.
Then I go to the grocery store and stock up on fresh, organic fruits and vegetables with healthy antioxidants. Kale and broccoli, cabbage and zucchini, oranges, asparagus, strawberries, beets. It feels as though I’ve been given a little warning and a second chance to take better care of this body that sustains me and that, I have to admit, I kind of like and want to keep around and healthy for years to come.