Just a little over a week ago I had my yearly mammogram. I went into the fray, never once thinking anything could possibly be amiss. It’s been nearly nine years since my last breast cancer experience, so I’ve become pretty blasé about my checkups. In fact, I asked the young woman who was doing the mammogram if I needed to use the gown, since in the years since my first diagnosis I’ve shown my breasts to so many people it just seemed like a waste of a perfectly good (and clean) gown.
So, when they called me the next day and said I needed to come back for some additional views, I was more than a bit surprised. Not only surprised, but still in the mindset that the images had been blurry, or I’d moved, or …
They asked me to come back that same day (I began to have “that” feeling) – but I was still pretty chipper. When I got back to the radiology department, the tech took her additional images and asked me to wait in the adjacent room so she could make sure they didn’t need any additional views (thankfully, this time I had opted for the gown).
A few minutes later she ushered me to yet another room (this one had a door on it, which for some reason made me even more nervous) and said the radiologist would be in to talk to me in just a moment. By now “that” feeling was galloping around my head relentlessly. I actually had to ask the tech where the nearest bathroom was. I remember apologizing and saying something like, “When I’m scared I always have to go to the bathroom.” Even in that moment I was astonished that I could go from self-sufficient and sure of myself to meek and mild like a switch had been flipped, almost as though my psyche thought if I behaved myself perhaps I wouldn’t get bad news.
The radiologist came in and explained to me they had found microcalcifications on the views of my left breast. She said there were two places and they are very small, but given my history and the fact they did not appear last year, she felt they needed to be biopsied.
By now my brain and my heart are having a race (and my bladder and bowel seem to be in on it too)! I don’t want to be afraid, but in this moment that is the only emotion I’m able to conjure. Okay, perhaps not the only emotion — I think dread is in the mix as well.
I try to tell my brain to shut up because if I’ve learned nothing else in the nearly 18 years since I first found myself in this position, it’s to not let that little voice take control. I know I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel fear, but I also know that fear serves absolutely no purpose when dealing with the unknown.
I faintly remember putting my clothes back on and gathering my other belongings. The radiologist told me my oncologist would call to set up the appointment for the biopsy. I thanked her and drove back to work. I do remember worrying that I would have to make up the time because I’d been gone longer than an hour. I also recall thinking just how insignificant something like a few minutes lost here and there was in the overall scheme of things.
Fast forward to the stereotactic needle biopsy
In one week, I was back at the clinic. This time for the actual biopsy. Although I’d read repeated firsthand accounts of how painless the procedure is, I was still a sweaty mess. Thank goodness my doctor called in a prescription for Xanax. At least I was able to sleep the night before. I took another that morning because I simply couldn’t bear feeling frightened.
News flash … the doctor was quite handsome. Yes, I may have been a sort of drug-induced zombie at that point … but I’m not dead! I actually find it humorous that not only was he nice to look at, but I was still able to notice under the circumstances. I didn’t just notice his looks, but also the irony. If I’m going to have a strange man look at my breast for this reason, I sure would have preferred someone who looked more like Elmer Fudd.
The procedure was actually completely painless for me. I didn’t even feel the slight needle sticks they warned me about that were used to numb the area. I was in and out in less than an hour, and much of that time was spent while they were making sure they had everything lined up correctly. The biopsy itself took just a couple of minutes for them to perform.
I listened as they told me how to care for the wound, and made small talk while the tech was putting on the gauze and tape dressing used to protect where the incision had been made (she thinks the doctor is cute too!)
And then I went right back to a place I’d visited in 1996 and again in 2005 – having to wait for the results. I’m given a form that talks about things to be on the lookout for – like running a temperature or having my breast feel hot to the touch. I’m told not to take a shower for the next two days so I can keep the wound dry. I’m told that the Steri-strips will either fall off on their own, or my doctor can take them off when I visit her for my follow-up. Then I’m told I should have the biopsy results in five working days. Repeat … five working days.
It is in that instant I feel as though I’m being dragged through a time warp. It could be 1996 or 2005 all over again, because it certainly doesn’t feel like we’ve made much progress when it comes to the tests necessary to see if we have cancer and the time it takes to find out.
So now, every time my phone rings for the next several days my heart is going to skip a beat and I’m going to have to try to put myself in that place all breast cancer patients know much too well. The ungodly no-woman’s-land that resides between illness and health, between happiness and sorrow, between bravery and fear. It’s not a place anyone would choose, and I for one can tell you that it really irritates me that so little progress has been made when it comes to how long we must wait … and wait … and wait. When a huge weight would literally be lifted from our already weary shoulders if the wait for results took less time.