My annual mammogram did not get off to an auspicious beginning. The day I learned that Elizabeth Edwards had died, I, in a heightened emotional state, made an appointment for my annual mammogram. (This had been on my To Do List for months.) After arriving at the appointment, checking in, getting the smock on, and meeting the technician, I realized, when the technician looked at my form, that it hadn’t been a year since my last mammogram. To avoid trouble with the insurance company (or a huge bill that I had to cover myself), I dressed and rescheduled the appointment for two weeks later.
This time all seemed to go swimmingly. I adored the technician, who lovingly explained everything she was doing. Respectful and careful, she was the best technician I’ve ever had. Despite all the squeezing and flattening of my breasts between plastic plates, all the awkward positions and the holding of my breath for the photos, the appointment seemed like a great success. I even stopped at the front desk to let them know how magnificent the technician, Cristall, was. I left the appointment practically skipping, so glad to have this annual task taken care of, feeling so good about myself, certain I was in top health, and also pleased because Cristall had referred to me as “petite,” a word nobody has ever used to describe me. I went straight to the gym after the appointment and pursued my strength training routine with energy and enthusiasm, again feeling like and admiring myself as the pinnacle of health and well-being.
Three days later my internist called to say that there was a “density” on one of my images and that I needed to return, but this time to the second floor, where they send you when routine checks become other than routine. I needed additional images taken and perhaps also an ultra sound. My internist was reassuring that often this amounted to nothing, but that it was important to be certain about what the “density” was. I’ve been told I have “nodey” breasts and so have to be particularly careful when checking for abnormalities. I’ve also been through something similar to this before, being called back for more checking. I made an appointment for as soon as I could get in. In the meantime a letter came saying, “Your mammogram showed an abnormality that needs further investigation.” It went on to say, “Most of these abnormalities prove to be insignificant or benign (non-cancerous). We cannot determine whether your particular abnormality is benign or malignant (cancerous) until further evaluation is completed.”
For the days prior to the second appointment, I went about my business, trying not to dwell on what might be going on inside my body. I found it hard to believe that something could be malfunctioning given how good I felt physically, probably the best I’ve felt in years. Matt asked me whether I wanted him to come to the appointment, but I didn’t. I did, however, finally get nervous: I was lying on the table in the room, waiting for the doctor to do the ultra sound (the new images weren’t sufficient), and I thought to myself that it was possible they were going to give me bad news. After all, many women go to these appointments and get bad news. Why should I be exempt?
My dad died of cancer at age 52, more than twenty years ago now, having been diagnosed some three years earlier with bone marrow cancer. I kept thinking about what it must have been like when he went in search of help for what he thought was a routine lower back problem, the sign of aging, and instead found out that he had a vicious form of cancer.
When the radiologist explained about the ultra sound lotion he needed to squirt all over my left breast, I told him, “I’ve had two kids.” Then I tried being funny, when he scanned the images on his screen, saying, “Where’s the baby?” How different to have the same procedure now for something that could be deadly when previously this technology allowed me to see alien-like images of my two precious sons. Initially I made a lot of small talk with the doctor, until I decided to shut my mouth so that he could focus fully on determining whether anything was awry in the ocean-like pictures he was studying intently.
It didn’t seem as though he had found anything, but that was confirmed when a more senior doctor burst into the room saying, “You can be relieved! Everything looks fine.” Of course, I was relieved, but I also couldn’t stop thinking about the women who go to those appointments and are told something entirely different. I can’t take for granted my good health and the opportunity every day brings to take care of myself.