Thursday, June 3, 2010


I sit in the waiting room. Three of the six chairs are filled. We are all in matching shirts. Naked underneath. Thumbing through magazines but I am sure none of us is aware of what is on the page in front of us. Our minds have fast forwarded to sharing the news with our family. Thinking about arranging for time off work though this would be no vacation. We are all here because we did not pass the first screening at our annual mammogram. We get to go to the "Breast Center" for further manipulations, possibly an ultrasound, and if really bad, talking with a doctor about the next steps.

This is the third time I have had to take that extra step after the routine mammogram. One time resulted ultimately in a needle biopsy, and after a very long weekend of wild imaginings, a report that all is well. For now. I have a permanent marker in my breast from that one. Something we watch with each following mammogram. It hasn't changed. It's just "breast jewelry" as the technicians call it.

I am the second one called in. The first is still behind another door. Certainly being squished and prodded and manipulated beyond reason. I am called in by a humorless Asian woman with sharp bangs and thick glasses who is about a half-foot shorter than I. We are focusing on my right breast. I ask why. She says I need to speak to the radiologist. Something looked suspicious in the screening mammogram and they will take more pictures and if nothing I will be dismissed. If something I will get an ultrasound.

The first shot we have to do four times to get right. My other breast wants to get in the way. The area they are looking at is very deep and near my chest wall. Things try to get in the way. Each time she is ready to take a picture she runs away saying "don't breath. DON'T BREATH" in a mean tone. As if I could. I want to run away with her and leave my breast behind. The machine is pushing into my armpit. It seems angry to me. The technician is mad at me for the things that are getting in the way. I want to shove her. I would if I weren't pinned between flat plates. We get a few more angles and I am told to wait in the waiting area to find out if the radiologist who will look at the pictures decides if I need to get an ultrasound. I return to the waiting room. There are now four other women there. All different ones from the first time. As I am sitting there, mindlessly wandering through the Internet on my iPhone, a different technician comes out and tells the woman sitting next to me that she will be needing an ultrasound and someone will be coming to get her soon. With open eyes I send a prayer up for her. I tell myself that that will not be me: I will get excused and not have to have an ultrasound. I feel guilty in my false sense of security: this other woman has to have one so odds are I won't. I am glad I am not her. Just after she is called into another room a different staff person comes out and tells me that I am going to need an ultrasound so "hang tight." Balls. I start running through all the scenarios again. I knew it was just a matter of time. When your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, and when you have inherited her lovely but densely composed breasts you know that your number will eventually be up. You live your life around mammograms waiting for that shoe to drop. I pick up a magazine and don't make eye contact with the other women who are now probably sending prayers up for me and feeling like they may be off the hook since the odds went against me, putting them in better chance for not needing one. It does feel like a numbers game sometimes.

I am called into an ultrasound room by a pretty, young lady in a white coat. I lay down on the bed and open up that lovely gown. I nervously tell her that I would much rather have her looking at my tummy for a baby than what she is going to do. She acknowledges the gravity of this kind of ultrasound and tells me, like the others have, that hopefully this will just rule things out. I crank my head so I can see the screen as she runs the "mouse" through the gel on my breast. I see fields of white on black. Every time she slows down over one area I see blobs that look like cancer to me. I picture every splotch as a cancer. I am also watching her face to see if she is giving anything away. She is not. She is good at this. She does tell me then that she isn't seeing much but will let the radiologist see and will be right back. I lay there trying to put all my faith in her statement that she "didn't see much." I wonder if the other women are getting good messages or bad ones. I send prayers up for them as well as myself. The technician comes back in and says the radiologist said the ultrasound didn't show anything of concern but they are still worried about the mammogram pictures so they want me to take a few more and hopefully "it" will go away. Great. I go back and sit in the waiting room. This time just one other woman waiting, a new one yet again, flipping through a magazine. I get to thinking about how many women I have seen this morning at the Breast Center. We are all here because we need follow up. Some of us will have good news. Some will not. There were a lot of different women here today. That must mean there are a heck of a lot of women out there on the street wandering around with potential time bombs in their breasts. It seems impossible to me that with all these numbers nobody has come up with a cure or a vaccine. There is something very wrong with not finding the answer yet.

Now I don't know what to think. Part of me just wishes they'd find it and make a plan to stop it because now I don't trust if they don't find anything. A different mammogram technician comes and calls my name. I follow her into the same room as before. She is gentler and kinder than the first one. She tells me that they are going to be focusing in on a particular area and that I am not going to like the shot they have to take. Not at all. As if I liked the earlier shots they had to take? She shows me on the screen the area they are concerned with. She is right. This focused shot is even more uncomfortable. Painful to take. She is kind when she delivers the "don't breath" command. Much better than the first tech. When the shot is done, we wait for it to come up on the screen. She shows me the area she thinks he is looking at. I see a white blob. I see cancer. This high intensity shot is followed by two "rolling" shots. This means that after I lay my breast on the plate the technician puts her palm on it and rolls it forward to flatten out the back. I nearly tip over with the forward one. The backward one she says requires me to do a virtual back bend. She laughs. I don't. I am then escorted back to the waiting room to see if they are still concerned. Again I wait and play mind games. My breast is hot and throbbing from so much manipulation. I can feel the cancer in it. Somebody comes out and tells me "it's gone. See you in a year." That's it. I am relieved. I want to drop on my knees and cry. But there are other women in the room who have not yet gotten that message. I also don't trust the answer. Things like cancer don't just disappear. Are they really sure there's nothing there to worry about. I saw things there to worry about. But I will take that prognosis for now and find other things to worry about. Like the other women who I shared the waiting room with today. How many got bad news? How many are now having to live those conversations they just imagined. For how many did their other shoe drop? And when will mine? Then I exhale and autopilot back to work. This is what living with a time bomb in you feels like. Relieved to hear the news that there is nothing to worry about. Not trusting that news when you get it. But eventually you go on and you forget about it until the next time. Or until you hear of another woman, maybe a friend, who gets their own bad news. For now I will take this good news and share it with you and exhale. And keep sending up prayers for all the other women whose paths I crossed this morning.

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