I am over three years out from breast cancer diagnosis, cancer-free, and well into the swing of alternating MRI's and mammograms every six months. These don't seem to get any easier as time goes on. After my mammograms in July, all is good. The Eye of the Storm reflects on that day. Please forward this to a woman you know who is living with or beyond breast cancer. And please, let her know she's not alone.
One of the loneliest places on earth is the mammogram room on a call-back “just to check some calcification that wasn’t on the last mammogram. We’ll book time for an ultrasound, just in case.”
That’s where I stood July 19th, six days after my Friday the 13th birthday mammogram.
First trip into the chamber. “If the calcification appears scattered then we check again in 6 months. If it appears to be bunched together, then we would want to look at it more closely.”
After four initial compressions, the radiologist wanted to take a few more.
Second trip into the chamber. “OK, hold your breath.” I can’t hold any breath. I can’t work out why. Four or five more tight squeezes.
“Just have a seat and I’ll be back in a few minutes after the radiologist reads these.”
This is a new breast care center, so I get to wear a light salmon pink johnny. The blue johnnies are still in the dressing rooms but under the salmon johnnies. Should all of the salmon ones get worn, well, thank goodness for the blue ones. Fucking things. I must get a Hug Wrap for myself. “Don’t forget!” I scream to my subconscious.
“OK, Linda. We need to take a couple more.”
Third trip into the chamber. “This time we need to take the images while remaining compressed for 10 minutes.” “Are you kidding me?” my cancerous snarkiness raises its protective head. “More like five actually. We need to work out where the calcification is. This is the calcification.”
Bunched together... shit. “The mammogram shows it but doesn’t clearly identify where it is within the breast.”
I realize why I can’t hold my breath. I can’t breathe in to fill my lungs. The compression keeps my breathing shallow. I’m holding my breath on the exhale with no air in my lungs. I pick a spot on the wall; hyperfocus on it; tell my brain more oxygen will come soon. So that it doesn’t panic.
“Let me look at these before you go back to the waiting room.”
I stood in the middle of the quiet, dimly-lit room with the whole world spiraling around me. Which path do I walk on out of here? The room is calm. Peaceful. In the eye of the storm. A storm of normal life and responsibilities is what I walked in with. Will I walk out with the same or in the middle of another storm that makes the first one look like an April shower?
“Looks good. You can wait outside.” Minutes pass. Have I done everything I should? What are my priorities? Do I need to focus more on family, less on volunteering? Liam’s life book isn’t done. Do I even pray any more? Do I over react to things that I really shouldn’t?
“Sorry, Linda. We need to take a few more.”
Fourth trip into the chamber. “So the radiologist thinks the calcification may actually be on your skin. In that case it is 110% NOT cancerous.” Well, that’s good news. Perhaps my blood pressure dips a few points. More exhaled breath-holding. More compressions. “That should do it. Go ahead and get dressed and just sit in the waiting area until he reads these.” Ahh… the power returns as the salmon johnny is dispensed into the dirty laundry.
“Linda, come on back.” Oh, for fuck’s sake, I need a “Linda-go-home.”
Fifth trip into the chamber. “Don’t worry about changing into a johnny again. Let’s just take this. He wants me to roll you so we get a horizontal shot proving the calcification is on your skin. He just wants to be very careful given your history.”
Back to the waiting room. Ten minutes later, I’m sweating. I sent a message via a passing nurse saying, “I’ve got to go get my kids. I can’t stay any longer.” My kids are at a short play date that should have ended a half hour ago.
After checking in with the technician or radiologist, the nurse came back with a smiling reply, “We’ll see you in a year.” I’m pretty sure the technician forgot about me as I sat wanting to crawl out of my skin in the waiting room. After nearly two hours, five visits to the mammogram room, and 20 compressions, I flee to pick up my boys.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And tired. And teary. Next time I’ll stand in the middle of that room with a Tuscan red and yellow Hugwrap about me. I’ll arrange for a friend to meet me afterwards for a class of wine. Then perhaps dinner with Bill. Could I give myself the day rather than a tight two hours to sail through the next one?
That eerie calm standing in the eye of a storm. Exhausting.