I’m twisting today’s make something prompt a bit to suit my need. The instruction was to “create something that incorporates a mirror or reflection.” I’m sharing a reflection—something I wrote in my journal this week, while in the midst of a challenging situation. Right in the midst.
This was momentous not just because of the circumstances, but because I rediscovered the desire and capacity to write in my journal.
I stepped away from a lifelong practice of journaling several years ago. Someone I trusted rifled through my things, sought out my journal, and read my handwritten words. That betrayal destroyed the only place I had ever felt safe telling my whole truth.
I’m not sure what possessed me to take a journal with me this past Wednesday. But I did. And conversing with the pages got me through a time of great tension. I’m so relieved that my journal felt like a companion again, rather than something long-lost and alienated.
Enough prologue. Here’s the reflection. I’ve resisted the urge to edit much, other than changing names. What you see here is basically a transcription of my hand-written words.
* * *
The waiting area couldn’t be more pleasant. The walls are a warm terra cotta, the floor a strié pattern of taupe and putty. The furniture is comfortable and beautifully arranged. Even the lighting casts a soft glow, putting all of us women in a flattering place.
The music, piped through ceiling speakers, is soft and classical without feeling like an elevator. On the tables are magazines to suit varied interests, along with a lovely spring flower arrangement accented by wiggly sticks and a faux bird.
They’ve even extended the hospitality of a snack bar—though the coffee maker bears a handwritten note: “Out of Order.” Fortunately, I’ve brought my own mug of tea.
A few women have gathered. One has already been called and taken away. Two others are visiting quietly; one seems to have provided the other’s transportation, as the first is in a coat, rather than the drapey, pastel frock the rest of us are sporting.
I am unnerved by the most recent arrival, who used the restroom without washing her hands and now sits beside me, curled into herself, intent on a rosary.
We are in the Breast Health Center. I’m frightened to be here, and I’d wager that so is everyone else. Except possibly the woman who is accompanied by the coat-wearing friend. She seems more confident and lighthearted than the rest. Perhaps she is here not for detection, but for confirmation that the cancer is gone.
I’ve had my turn in the boob squeezer. They used a brand new machine on me. Just two weeks old. Since the staff is still learning the technology, I had three people in the room with me: two technicians in scrubs and a well-dressed, studious lady who probably came with the machine. It was a festive atmosphere, what with the small crowd. I’m grateful for the way the chatter and new gizmos removed my anxiety. Or at least minimized it for a time.
And now I’m back in the lovely room, where the cast of characters has changed. One coated woman sits around the corner from me. But she’s a new coated woman, probably someone else’s transport. A pretty blonde is hunched over a magazine, too intent on what Oprah published last month. And the rosary woman just returned, visited the bathroom again (this time possibly long enough to have washed her hands), and is now squirming and sniffling and swallowing audibly, two chairs over. I don’t see the rosary any more. It is either in her pocket or clenched in her hands. Ah, there it is. She dug it from the front pocket of her jeans and is back to praying. In Spanish.
Jennifer, my technician, is a sweet and attentive hostess. As she brought me back to the waiting room, she told me she and Susan, the other tech, will not move on to another case until mine is done—however long that takes. It “should be two hours.” But it could be all day. And then, I wonder, if there is some mysterious lump (which this team refers to as “Dennis,” by the way … they are searching for Dennis), will Jennifer and Susan accompany me to the biopsy? Chemo? Mastectomy?
These ladies seem so nice. Perhaps they would do that for me.
Then again, perhaps not. Susan just appeared, sat very close to me, and told me quietly that my next step is ultrasound. And she and Jennifer don’t do that. So now I will wait for another technician to fetch me for another process. Susan did ask if I was warm enough, and did I help myself to the snack bar …
Meanwhile, the cast of women in the room keeps changing. For as quiet as the space is, I can hear loudly the stress in every breath, sigh, page turn, coat zip, throat clear, foot shuffle. Is the tension mine? Or is it our collective invention?
One woman arrived in her pajamas. On the upside, she does not need to wear the mint green wrappy shirt the rest of us have tied on to cover our floppy, bra-less chests. But is she expecting that long of a stay? Does she know something I do not? Does “should be two hours” really mean I should have brought an overnight bag and some slippers?
I’m here for a follow-up diagnostic mammogram. The first was two or three weeks ago. If my test results were truly cause for concern, surely this follow-up would have been scheduled more quickly. Everyone, up to today, has assured me not to worry. The nurse on the phone, who called the day after mammogram number one; the nurse at my doctor’s office; and the doctor herself. They must be right. Right?
As the characters come and go from this warm, music-laced room, I hear fragments of the advice and information the patients receive from their technicians. One woman just returned from a biopsy. No wonder she looked so fraught. She was the first other patient I saw when I arrived. She was all crooked in her chair, her eyes closed and one arm draped over her forehead. If that isn’t body language for distress, I don’t know what is. She carries nothing but a smart phone and the key to her skinny, wood-paneled locker. Each of us is assigned such a locker, where we are storing our clothing while we go about this business of boob management. The locker/changing area is not unlike a fancy spa. But the locker itself is barely six inches wide. One of those puffy winter coats would never fit. I’m glad I wore my dressy wool coat today.
I wish Jim was not traveling, so he could be here with me. I think. Maybe not. I doubt he could come into this very female area. Would they have assigned him to sit elsewhere? Or do they have another section for boobs accompanied by male transporters?
At any rate, if I were to see Jim right now, I think I would weep. It is much easier to stuff the fear and anxiety down into my tall, black boots when the only others around are strangers. If I were to see someone I know, someone I love, those emotions would erupt and come squishing (or pouring) out of my eyes.
Just as I mused about the potential for tears, Karen came to get me. She is the ultrasound tech. Unsure if I would hear that gentle music again, I left the warm waiting room and followed her to a dim, cool ultrasound room. Karen instructed me to set my things on a chair, then stretch out on the “cart”—a portable, narrow bed on wheels—and open my frock to expose my right breast.
The right boob is the only one with suspicious views, it seems. The left has been wholly neglected this morning.
Once I was bare and ready, Karen wedged a slanted piece of foam under my right side, to make my breast “a little flatter.” I waited so many years of my life to not be flat. This struck me as funny, that she would want to diminish the fullness I have finally grown into.
Karen coated my boob in warm gel and set to work. She was silent for many, many minutes, just scanning the screen and painting my breast with her heavy wand, and clicking now and then to grab a still for the doctor to see. After a while, I realized she was seeking multiple angles on one particular dark spot. It was not quite diamond, not quite oval. Sort of squishy oblong. Decidedly darker than the rest of the sea of fiber I could see from my neck-craning angle on the cart. She evaluated the dark shape several times, selecting points on four sides and clicking to capture what she was obviously measuring and re-measuring. “Measure twice, cut once” rang through my brain. That wasn’t funny.
I think Karen caught on to my concern. She told me the shape she was studying was a “teeny tiny cyst.” Only about three millimeters long, she said. And, in fact, I have a lot of them. But she needed to get good shots of this particular one for the doctor to see.
Soon she was done. Karen left me to mop up my gel-coated boob, use the restroom, and wait for the doctor’s analysis of all her gray pictures. I wiped my right temple, which was just a bit tear-moistened from the obsessive thoughts that had taken over my mind during the past 15 minutes of speculation.
Maybe it was 10 minutes. It felt long.
Karen returned with a piece of paper for me to sign. I was done. The doctor didn’t see need for further squeezing or swiping or imaging of my boob. At least not today. The form says my “exam shows findings highly likely to be benign.” I’m supposed to return in six months to do this all again. “Probably just to cover our ass,” Karen said under her breath.
I’d like to say I’m relieved. But I’m not. Not at all. Those two hours (almost exactly) were enough time for me to envision a double mastectomy, a beautiful tattoo cover-up, and a life of fear that my daughters will inherit disease.
Working through all that—living with that—isn’t going to be easy. And I’m among the fortunate. At least for now.
I wonder what happened to the lady with the rosary. I hope she’s praying not just for herself, but for the crooked-sitting woman who just had a biopsy. I know I am.