This post was originally published May 31, 2012, I am reposting it in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Take care of yourself!
There was a message left at 1:27 pm yesterday, the day after my mammogram, “Please call us back.” Call them back? What about just waiting for that nice letter that arrives next week to tell me everything is okay?
Hours had passed and kids swarmed the kitchen as I listened to the message. I waited until I dropped them off at afternoon activities, I was alone in the parking lot and I clutched the note paper with the number of the Anne Pappas Center scribbled on it. The woman who answers is so busy she needs to call me back. “Breathe,” I tell myself and I wait. At 4:55 pm, I worried that I hadn’t heard and that they’d close for the night, I couldn’t wonder overnight, so I called back apologizing for my repeat call. She was very sweet, just very busy and promised to call me before she left.
True to her word, she called me reporting that they want to do an ultrasound, we were able to schedule it for the next day, today, two days after my original mammogram.
I have had mammograms for several years now starting with a diagnostic check of a lump in my right breast, everything has been fine with that year after year. I wondered if something had changed. I prayed. I thought of my friends who had fought and are fighting breast cancer at a young age, at my age. I thought about how the kids have giggled at me crying to the Martina McBride song, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It.”
I’m not in a high risk category; I have no family history, I had my first full term pregnancy and birth before age 30, I breastfed three kids. Breastfeeding has a cumulative protective factor and I’d nursed two babies for over a year each and my third for two years (a long time from our culture’s viewpoint, but in my doula-ing-breastfeeding-birthie world, not long enough. I digress). I’m not high risk, but, really, I know that doesn’t mean I’m not AT risk as a woman with boobs.
Nervous all morning, I distracted myself by watering my vegetable garden, vacuuming, organizing my desk and making hard boiled eggs. My calendar alert nudged me to my car, I was suddenly very jittery and the drive to Providence seemed longer than normal.
In the waiting room, I overheard a very young woman checking in and she mentioned that last year she had to come back in for an ultrasound, when her body moved slightly toward me, I croaked out, “That’s why I’m here.” I don’t know why I told her or what made be blurt it out to a stranger.
Her eyes reddened, “It makes me cry to think about it still,” she said, and that opened in me a charge of emotions, I suddenly welled up, willing myself not to burst into tears. She looked at me empathetically, “You’ll be okay.”
The technicians acted with kindness and understanding. I didn’t wait long in my johnny but as the ultrasound woman escorted me to the room, I felt on the verge. On the verge of not just crying, but of sobbing. I felt vulnerable, raw, open, scared. I was on a precipice, the next moments really mattered.
“I’m going to need your left arm out,” she directed me, my head grasped what she asked and I thought, “but the lump is in my right.” As she asked me to put my arm above my head, my tears betrayed me, I didn’t make a noise, but I felt my eyes overflow, the tickle of tears running down my temples toward my ears. She worked silently. I could not stop my eyes from making more tears, I could not stop my heart from its high-speed vibrations.
Then I was alone as she left to consult with the physician. Alone. Thinking. Wondering what she saw.
They returned together, the doctor in the red-checked shirt did the ultrasound, he took his time and wordlessly looked, looked, looked. Tears trickled again, but I focused on his shirt and thought of picnics and subtly whisked a drop off my cheek.
After awhile, he explained to me that they wanted to do a spot compression mammogram to get a better look at the area and I got my first hopeful piece of news, they saw nothing of concern on the ultrasound. Targeted mammograms yield one of three results: the dot in question goes away, return visit in six months or get a biopsy. I would know today which course we would take. It was a relief that I would be leaving knowing something.
I was calmer during my diagnostic mammograms with a compassionate technician who explained that sometimes the dense tissue “stacks up” and shows up as worrisome. I saw my breast images on the wall and she showed me what they were examining. Then I waited for the doctor to determine next steps.
As I waited, other women asked if I got good news. We shared, we talked, there was an atmosphere of support and caring concern among women of different ages sitting in a hotel-like waiting room in our hospital gowns, waiting for answers. “Good Luck,” wished the older woman sitting beside me as I was called, I wished her the same. We were connected by this experience.
The doctor in the picnic-blanket shirt smiled at me, it was good news, I was given a clean bill of health and there’s no need to come back until next year. He told me that about 1 in 10 women will get a call back to further investigate something in a mammogram.
It’s now October with pink ribbons and breast cancer walks, but it is always time to remember your breast health and get regular mammograms. Tonight, I am grateful, relieved and still thinking of my friends and all the women who have ever battled breast cancer. I felt just a little step of their journey today.