I walked out of work early on the Friday before New Year’s, feeling pleased with the good year that was 2017, yet another vacation weekend ahead and all the lovely responses to a question I put out to my Facebook friends asking about the best thing to happen to them this year. Two hours later I was laying on a hospital table, while a radiologist I had just met was squeezing hot ultrasound jelly on my left breast.
A few months earlier I did what obedient women in their 40s do and followed my doctor’s recommendation to get my first mammogram. They are, everyone said, no big deal. It so happened that my company had a mobile imaging truck coming that month so one Tuesday I awkwardly giggled my way through getting my breasts squeezed by a big machine in the parking lot of my office. Aside from some jokes about being topless at work, I didn’t think too much about it. Normal. Routine. Responsible even.
Until I had a voicemail from a local number I didn’t recognize. The breast people. Some things weren’t clear, a few more pictures, we’ll send these to your doctor, can you come back in?
My doctor said it was normal, my friends who have had second rounds of images said it was normal. It was just not worth getting worked up because it was all, super, super normal.
Holidays were busy, I didn’t feel any sense of urgency and waited until after Christmas to go back in.
So there I am, leaving work and that happy Facebook thread on the last Friday of the year. I had plans to take my niece ice skating. I made a joke to my sister about seeing if they could “squeeze me in” early and told her I would be there easily by 3 to get Nina.
My sum total of personal hospital experience is a four-hour kidney stone episode about seven years ago so they feel quite foreign to me. I checked in and waited until a nice nurse took me back, gave me a gown, and told me to lock my cell phone away with my clothes. I went into another waiting room where a bunch of older ladies were sitting around telling chemo stories. I looked for a seat away from all of them. I didn’t want anyone to ask me anything and risk hearing any kind of “yeah they thought mine was nothing too” cancer story. There was a TV on, and the program was about a violent rape and murder case so I focused all my attention on that creepy show. Easier to fill my head with that stranger’s horrible experience than to allow even a tiny thought that this was going to be anything more than a few extra images and off to the skating rink.
The technician was nice. She pointed out the little specks she was magnifying. She said, “this really doesn’t seem like anything but I’ll show the radiologist and he’ll decide if you need an ultrasound”.
The room you wait in to see if you need an ultrasound is small, no windows, a couple of old magazines on the table. Family Circle. Reader’s Digest. A clear demographic that usually sits in this room. I’m now late to pick up Nina but I don’t have my phone.
When the door opens I already know she’s here to tell me I need an ultrasound. I lay back and I think about how most women have their first ultrasound experience looking for a baby heart beat and here is mine, looking for cancer. She gets started and I go to ask a question but it catches in my throat and I can feel myself starting to cry and I really don’t want to so all I get out is “what are you doing?”. She is kind, tells me what she sees, explains that she’s taking the pictures but the radiologist will have to look at them too. She leaves to find him, then comes back and says he’s in a procedure and it will be ten more minutes and is that OK? I tell her I’m late to pick up my niece. No cell allowed but if I know my sister’s number I can call her from the phone in the room. She leaves and I call Emily, hoping she’ll pick up a strange number. She does, I tell her I’m still there and she instantly says she’s coming over. I know they won’t let her back but I’m glad she’s on her way. I didn’t think to bring anyone because this was all so routine.
There are no magazines in this room either. I have this keychain bracelet from the locker on my wrist so I’m playing with that while I count tiles on the ceiling. Eight minutes, seven minutes. We aren’t going ice skating. I don’t want cancer. I mean, no one wants cancer but I’m 41 and I’m single and dating already sucks so hard and what? I’m going to be a cancer patient? No thank you.
The radiologist comes in. He’s so nice. Kind of a goof. He’s the third stranger of the day with his hands all over my left breast. He tells me exactly what he’s looking for and what he sees. “There it is”, he tells the technician. Ah. So, there is an “it”.
“Well, it’s likely nothing, but we like to be safe so I’d like to biopsy this one.” We are three layers deep into “this is no big deal” so those words have lost all their meaning. Didn’t every cancer story start with “this is probably nothing’”? He’s so nice. He asks me if I have good New Year’s plans and please don’t let this ruin my weekend. Yes. I have good plans. And then I say that hey it might be my last so no this won’t ruin my weekend, I have incentive for it to be the best ever. They are used to gallows humor so we all laugh.
I finally get to put my clothes back on and go out and my sister shows up a few minutes later. She sits with me while we set up the biopsy appointment.
I didn’t really want to be alone that evening so I went to see the zoo lights with Emily and her family. My niece Nina drove with me and she requested that I play “Little Red Corvette” in the car. We sang “Baby you’re much too fast”, Nina’s favorite part, at the top of our lungs and I was glad it was dark and she sits in the back so I didn’t have to explain the tears over a song we listen to every time we are together. I told myself I could have that night and the next day to worry all I wanted and then I would put it away.
When I woke up on Saturday, I felt a kind of crushing anxiety I have only experienced a few times in my life. As if I didn’t move, or open my eyes, and if I could make myself as small as possible, I could freeze time and none of this would be happening. I laid there for a few hours, holding still, willing myself to fall back to sleep so the endless loop of dread in my head would shut off.
I had told my brother-in-law I would go with him to take the kids skiing, and the thought of spending the day in the mountains with them broke through and I got up. I love the routine of getting ready for a ski day and I was feeling something close to cheerful as I left the house. My sister-in-law, who is a nurse and who I had texted the night before because I couldn’t say any of it out loud, called while I was driving. I pulled into a parking lot at the bottom of the canyon and cried but also felt comforted as she walked me through all the ways this wasn’t as scary as it sounded. She struck a perfect balance between acknowledging that it sucked but also, making me feel hopeful. I headed up the canyon blasting a playlist I had made last summer of all my favorite female artist “anthems” and had made a couple of resolutions by the time I got up to Solitude.
I play by all the healthy human rules. I work out. I eat my veggies. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I sleep. I go to the doctor. I live an active life. If something nefarious was in my body, I didn’t do anything to put it there. There was nothing to second guess, nothing for me to dissect and overthink, no “cause” that I could run through my mind over and over as I tried to fall asleep.
And whatever it was, it was already there. For the next 12 days, I could worry and freak out and nothing would change. I could drive myself crazy overthinking everything like I am prone to do, or I could just. Let it go. Allow it to play out without losing my mind because it’s completely beyond my control.
I was essentially born worried. And for the most part, for my adult life, I’m always in the driver’s seat on everything. So, you take a natural worrier who likes to be in constant control and you have a person who wastes a fair amount of time tied up in useless knots. I have, as the kids say, “no chill”. So much of quitting my job and taking some time off last year was about learning how to let things go, to trust the universe a little bit more, and to pry that death grip off the steering wheel. I spent the last half of 2017 feeling like a much calmer, saner, less worried version of myself. I recognized on that drive that now was a pretty outstanding opportunity to see if that was a version that could stick in the face of things beyond job stress and some guy not calling.
So that is what I have done. Which isn’t to say I haven’t had a couple of small meltdowns, or that there hasn’t been some staring at the ceiling of my bedroom in the middle of the night time. But for the most part, I have been uncharacteristically calm in the face of probably the scariest process I have ever been through. The biopsy was on Monday and although I’m not in a huge rush to have four big needles stuck in my breast again anytime soon, it was a relatively easy experience. I was watching everything on the screen and the doctor kept telling my “young breast tissue” was a little harder to get through, which DELIGHTED me in the midst of a day where I definitely cried when each successive nurse asked me to confirm my full name and birthday. My mom and sister came, and having all the kiddos in the waiting room was a sweet “life goes on” way to wrap it up. There is now a band-aid on my breast that I can’t stop looking at and laughing. It looks so innocuous, like I got a paper cut or something, not two weeks of wondering if my body is manufacturing poison.
I’m now waiting on results and there is some stress in that, but for thirteen days I have taken good care of myself. I wore all the sequins and went to a big crazy party for New Year’s, cooked good food, worked out, did yoga. I’ve been productive at work, spent time with people I love, stayed out late on a work night to see a favorite band. Just lived my life the way I always do, instead of moving through this time feeling scared and out of control.
I get a little choked up still when I think about it, but I’m not afraid. Whatever happens, there will be another plan, another chance to grow, another layer of empathy.
I wrote this piece before I had the results. I didn’t want the outcome to color the experience of what it felt like through the process. I got the “all clear” call from my doctor today and felt relief in every cell in my body. I'm celebrating with a workout and a cupcake, as you do.