I’ve always thought it would be nice to write a daily journal but for reasons unknown, I’ve never been very successful at carrying it out. If I did keep one, however, the entries for the past few rather eventful days would be a good place to begin. If I did write a journal, then, here’s what it would say:
Wednesday, February 3: It’s the day after Punxsutawne Phil, the groundhog in Pennsylvania, saw his shadow, and the weather here in Utah is feeling amazingly like a preview of spring. I woke up this morning thinking the weather would be terrible. I have an appointment mid-afternoon and we take advantage of the good driving conditions to leave early for a few errands. We arrive at the Huntsman Center a full half hour before the appointed time and ride the elevator up to have a leisurely cup of coffee in the coffee shop. Everything goes smoothly at the radiology department. Information is verified, and I have only moments to wait until I’m swept into the changing room to disrobe. I join two ladies already waiting and another one sweeps in and we glance at each other wondering, I’m sure, which of us will be called first–in order we presume. The last lady in is the first one called surprisingly. The lady who entered just before me is called, and after a few minutes it’s my turn. When I finish, the poor girl who entered around the same time I did is still waiting. She’s the most anxious because her three kids are in the waiting room with the man who brought her, presumably her husband. I wonder why she’s still waiting after I’ve finished. I presume there are protocols to be followed.
Thursday, February 4: Another supposedly storm pattern skirts around us and leaves another good day for errands before class at 1:30. We leave the house around 12:45 and return home at the end of the day around 4:30. As is his custom, Hubby checks for messages on the answering machine. Just one. Left at 1:40. For Alice. It’s from the Huntsman Center. It’s Linda at the radiology department. She’s calling about the mammogram performed yesterday. There are some irregularities that require further exploring and could I please call back as soon as possible so we can set up a time.
Oh my! What can it mean? Maybe it’s questions about insurance. They hadn’t asked to see my Medicare card nor supplemental insurance proof. It was all on the computer. I couldn’t remember whether they’d asked for my picture ID. Unspoken questions seem to float about the air around us as both Hubby and I ponder the implications of this completed unexpected call. All I can find room for in my head is how ironic that saying about life interfering while we’re so busy making other plans. Our thoughts have been permeated the past weeks with flight schedules and itinerary for visiting India in June. Things seemed to be about to fall into place. Of course I call Linda immediately but there’s only a machine at the other end. Apparently Linda either goes home early or is otherwise occupied. I leave a message on her voice mail and hang up hoping for it to ring back soon.
By 7 or 8 o’clock, it’s clear we’ll have to get through the night without learning anymore. Maybe it really is an insurance irregularly. But probably not. It’s exactly one year and one day since my previous mammogram at the same laboratory. After awhile I decide to self-examine. There it was! I felt it almost immediately. (How had I known to begin on the left?) It felt enormous. How had I missed it in the shower? How long had it been there? When had I done my last self-exam? Three months ago when my dentist reminded me as he does everytime I see him–the time I lost my crown in the tacky candy? That would be November 19. Regardless of the last time, I’d failed to feel anything and always wondered if I know if something was there. That means it’s a helluva fast growing thing, doesn’t it? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I feel the familiar rock forming in my stomach–the one that lets me know not all is as it should be.
Friday, February 5 a.m.: Only moments after the clock rolls over to 8:00 a.m. Hubby is on the phone to Linda. He leaves a second message on her voice machine. We sit down at our respective computers and sip our coffee waiting for the phone to ring–which it does after 15 or 20 minutes. Linda has the kind of voice every hospital administrator must be looking for when they need someone to inform their patients of possible bad news. She explains the different scenarios, and reassures me that the Huntman center has had much success with their surgical procedures in these matters. Rather than the sharp intake of breath I expected when I tell her I can feel the lump and that it feels quite large and hard, she exclaims oh that’s good news! We’ve already settled on a 2:30 afternoon appointment THAT day, and she’s pretty sure since I could show the doctor exactly where it was, he would very probably do an ultrasound right away so that he could tell me what I was facing by the time I left the center! Strangely enough, I begin to breathe and feel much better. It’s good to know what your enemy looks like, I decided, the best decisions could then follow.
Friday, p.m.: Within moments of our arrival, I’m whisked into the same changing room as the day before. This time there’s one other lady waiting. I pick up the same magazine as the day before, and leaf to the page where I left off. The technician sticks her head in to inform me she’s just going to be a few moments getting the room set up; she’ll only be a moment or two. More pictures. Which seem to hurt more now that I know about the lump. Then I’m moved to another room where the ultrasound will be done. Dr. Morgan enters and plops warm goop on my left breast the tech has cleaned with hygienic wipes, then wields the mighty wand and voila! I see and recognize the lumps on the pictures because I’ve spent some time earlier in the day learning all I can about breast tumors and such. I watch his face to see if I can glean any information at all there. He speaks finally, saying something about me probably wanting to know the truth no matter what it was! I assured him I did. In summary, it was about 3/4 inch long and about as deep, not pliable, irregular in shape, and it looked suspicious. He would try to get a needle biopsy worked into the schedule that afternoon if possible. I lie there on the table feeling shell shocked. What happened to yesterday? When did this start? Where did the sun go?
My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was in her early 50s. Breast cancer. Every year I passed another birthday, I would compare my age to hers at her death. She reached 58. I’m on my way to 68 this year. My brother was 54 when his metastasized cancer claimed him. Every birthday I passed I began to feel more triumphant. There was, at times, a certain amount of survivor’s guilt, but lately I’d begun to think maybe my one surviving brother and I would beat the odds after all. It didn’t even occur to me yesterday that this mammogram was anything other than the routine I had followed since my sister was first diagnosed in the early 1980’s. A card a week later saying my mammogram results were negative. I’d begun to feel a little smug and that smugness was about to bite me in the ass. Or more specifically the breast.
The good news after the procedure, which would require a full post to describe, would be that Dr. Morgan did not observe any abnormalities around the lymph nodes, but there aren’t any guarantees. He assured me the biopsies could very well come back negative, but in view of the percentages of sampling errors, the size of the lump, its irregular shape, etc., he would advise me to get it out anyway.
So here I sit on a sunny Monday afternoon. I have seen my enemy, though I don’t yet know its strength. The test results may be available by late tomorrow, but certainly by Wednesday. We’ve made an appointment with a surgeon for the Wednesday 17th. Numerous quick consultations with health advisers led me to keep my regular infusion treatment (for rheumatoid arthritis) today, and I should be ready to face surgery in a week to 10 days, or whenever it happens. I gather that depends on what the medical reports say tomorrow or Wednesday.
In the meantime life goes on. I have no explanation for the calm I feel. I’m usually planning my funeral in prior medical emergencies, so certain I was that vengeful god from my childhood in the fundamentalist church finally got fed up with me badmouthing him now and then and decided to call my number. This time, when the situation feels more serious than anything I’ve faced before–including the hepatitis, the diverticulitis, and the debilitating days before the RA was finally diagnosed and treatment begun–I realize there’s not a damn thing I can do to change the outcome, even worry won’t keep the plane in the air.
There is one thing that surprises me. It’s that survivor’s guilt thing. I would say these things to my brother and sister if I could. I felt terrible those years you were facing your demons; helpless, yes even guilty yet happy that my life was so going so great all the while yours was fading away. It’s my turn now it looks like. I understand better today than ever. But we’re more even now; I’m not the favored one anymore. And while I hope for the best outcome, like you Sis, I’ll fight like hell as long as I can.
I hate leaving on a such a negative note, so in spite of the length of this post I will add a bit of comic relief, which is how I’ve come to think of this particular part of an otherwise negative experience: a needle (or whatever term they choose to call it) inserted in your breast tissue isn’t the most pleasant sensation even when you’ve been given some sort of local anesthetic to dull the pain. Most of the time I lay there with my left arm lifted behind my head with my eyes closed tightly as if not seeing what was going on would make it easier. Then I felt the pressure and heard the clicks that meant little snips of tissue were being incised and collected, six all together if my count was correct. Then something caused me to open my eyes. I saw Dr. Morgan leaning over me in what must have been a very awkward position for him, one hand on the gun-like contraption he was guiding into the breast, the other on the screen to guide him. Then I noticed his nostrils. Apparently he was in the last stages of a head cold, the point where the mucous seems unending. Like any anomaly, I stared at it a full minute trying to figure it out, finally realizing it was–what else can I call it?–snot. Hanging pendulously above my chest area. With every breath, I was certain it would land any moment in a splat! Every now and then he’d suck air back upwards through his nose and it would disappear for a moment, only to spring back downwards immediately it seemed. What do doctors do in a case like this, I wondered? In a surgical procedure–at least on tv–there was a nurse standing by ready to wipe perspiration and presumably snot too except it never happens. I wondered if they failed to add that to the list for the x-ray technician that stood assisting? It went on so long, I began to feel very sorry for the poor Dr. Morgan. Hubby was sitting in a chair across the small room watching the whole thing, and later we compared notes. I decided that even under the most dire of circumstances the funniest things sometimes happen for a reason. I’m convinced it is always for good reason. At that point in the day, both Hubby and I needed–and got–a good, shared laugh!
Postscript: Ladies, if you haven’t scheduled your mammogram this year, let this be a reminder of how important it is. And if you don’t self-exam regularly, think about starting that habit tonight! It could make a difference!