By Sharon Beckman
It’s time for your annual mammogram, which, in this case, is over two years since your last one. Doctors say you don’t need one every year now, although different studies come out all the time which tell you one thing, then another. You opt to pay the extra 60 dollars this time to get the touted 3-D imaging that is now offered at the University Hospital, although you debate whether it’s worth it or not. But you’ve always been told, “You have dense breasts,” so you guess it’s worth it if it saves you from having to return for a dreaded follow-up exam. The tech kneads your breasts, one by one, onto the cold plastic tray before squeezing the other plastic tray toward it, sandwiching your breast firmly between the two. She squeezes the trays even closer together with a few last hand twists of a knob. You hold your breath when told, breathe out with relief when permitted, and hold your breath again when ordered, before she says, “Good.” She changes your arm position, adjusts your torso, pushes back your shoulder while moving your other shoulder into another awkward pose, all while urging you to relax. This happens many times before she disappears with the films into another room, to be briefly reviewed by the radiologist. Then they let you go home. You receive a letter a week later stating that they want to compare your current films with your last films from out of state, which they have requested. After another two weeks’ waiting, they send you another letter asking that you return for a follow-up mammogram, where you repeat the uncomfortable positions but on the right side only. However, the unseen radiologist this time requests an ultrasound after seeing the images, so you cross the hall in your pink hospital gown to another chilled room where you lie on the examining table, partially twisted away from the technician, and raise your right arm above your head. The tech squirts your breast with warm gel and wands the area, pausing to type data into her machine and click to take pictures. Lots of them. She towels off most of the gel, covers your bare breast with your gown, and disappears to show the radiologist, who returns almost immediately with her, wanding the area herself as she peers onscreen at the resulting images. She then sits beside you, introduces herself as Dr. Fajardo, and says there’s a spot she doesn’t like, which didn’t show up on the out-of-state mammogram films, and she wants you to go for a biopsy. “No emergency,” she says, “but I’d like you to do it within a month, so you don’t forget.”
A week later you are back at the hospital where you meet Dr. Walsh, who explains the biopsy procedure: along with guiding the ultrasound wand, she will insert a needle with Lydocaine into your right breast in several areas, which will sting and be momentarily painful, and, after several minutes when the area is numb, she will insert a longer needle, extracting various tissue samples with a loud click. She will have to do this three or four times, but will warn you before each click. It’s just as she says it will be, down to the loud clicks that sound like a staple gun and the pressure as she suctions out the samples. When she’s finished, you’re bandaged and given an ice pack and several pages of post-biopsy instructions, and she says she will call in three days with the results, stressing that she will not leave any results, good or bad, on voicemail. Thursday morning you forget your phone as you run errands, and when you return home, there is a pleasant-sounding message on your voicemail to call Dr. Walsh, and you feel relieved from the tone of her voice. You phone her immediately and she says, “The results came back, and they were cancerous,” and you numbly ask her what seem to be logical follow-up questions, but you’re staring at the back of the envelope where you’ve written the word “Cancer,” circling it heavily, over and over, and you don’t hear her answers to your forgotten questions. You point the word to your husband, and your face crumples. You start to cry, and Dr. Walsh pauses on the other end of the phone and says she knows it’s hard to hear and she hates having to make these calls. She asks if you’re alright, and you can’t answer her. She says that a nurse will call later that day to make an appointment with a surgeon. She stays on the line until you can talk again. You thank her and hang up.
When you go back to the University Hospital days later to check in for the surgeon’s appointment, you’re in a different wing, the impressive-sounding Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. You and your husband enter the crowded reception area where patients are flipping through magazines and chatting. You glance at them: bald women and emaciated men, people with IVs strung on poles by their sides, people in wheelchairs. You think to yourself, “Oh man, they all look like cancer patients. I don’t belong here.” And then you think, “Wait,” because you realize with a jolt that you do.
Sharon Beckman is an artist and member of a memoir writing group. She is now, happily, cancer-free.