Since I reached the half-century mark last fall, I’ve been a little preoccupied with my impending demise. Not that I’m planning on shrugging off this mortal coil any time soon, but it’s, you know … out there. Death, I mean.
You see, I’ve reached the stage of life where my own body is beginning actively trying to kill me. It seems Mother Nature figures by this time any offspring I may have produced are old enough to more or less fend for themselves, and I’m not spawning any more, so really I’m just taking up space. Even the very oxygen I breathe is turning my formerly well-disciplined and law-abiding cells into havoc-causing free radicals.
As a spinster, I occupy a higher-than-average space on evolution’s hit list. It seems I may be penalized for failing to fulfil the biological imperative (i.e., reproducing) with an increased risk for ovarian and breast cancers. Protest though I may, Ma Nature simply smirks, “I don’t care how skilled you are at propagating dahlias. Your job is to propagate your OWN species, slacker.”
Mother Nature’s opinion of me:
It doesn’t help that I’m 1) kind of a hypochondriac; and 2) morbidly fascinated by deadly disease. I tend to diagnose any twinge or twitch as some exotic malady I spent two hours observing on YouTube the night before. Sleepless night? Must be Fatal Familial Insomnia Syndrome. A nosebleed has me wondering how on earth I got exposed to Ebola.
You get the idea.
Despite my fascination with horrible things that can happen to me, I strenuously avoid any opportunity to actually find out if something’s wrong. I.do.not.want.to.know. Thus it was with extreme reluctance that I went in for a physical exam – my first in eight years – a couple of days ago. My doctor poked and prodded in the usual ways, probed all of my orifices (this is why they get paid the big money) and pronounced me apparently healthy, if not fit. Then she sent me downstairs for a mammogram after extracting a promise to schedule my next exciting adventure, which involves a lot of laxative and a flexible hose, sometime soon.
The next day I got my test results in my personal “My Chart” online account. Under mammogram, I found the following: “No suspicious mass, asymmetric density, architectural distortion or suspicious microcalcification in the right breast.”
Then: “Small area of architectural distortion in the outer left breast middle depth.”
Oh. How could this be? My left boob has always been my good boob; my right boob is the problem child, subject to cyclical soreness and random burning sensations. Leftie, by contrast, has always just hung their quietly, minding its own business.
Moments later I was on the phone with the nurse at my doctor’s office.
ME: I just looked up architectural distortion on the Internet–
NURSE: Don’t. Don’t look up stuff.
Too late. It is enough to say that what I had learned from Dr. Google was not a day brightener. Additional scans were recommended; I set up an appointment at their earliest convenience. (MY earliest convenience would have been at that very moment, dammit.) For the next two days I avoided further search engine forays, but did spend a fruitless few moments looking for “home mastectomy kit” on Amazon Prime. Might as well get my money’s worth out of that annual fee.
I had the follow-up scans. The technician was initially perky and reassuring. “These things are almost always just overlapping glandular tissue,” she explained.
(Did she just call me fat?)
She dashed off to send my films to the radiologist for evaluation, leaving me alone to notice that for follow-up exams they move you from the generic, hospital-green exam rooms to the rather ominous Susan-Komen-pink exam room. One of my scans was on the screen behind the leaded glass barrier. A dark outline of an oval shape filled with squiggly white lines and blobs, like something colored by a toddler.
I remembered something else from the test result: “scattered fibroglandular densities.”
The technician returned. “The radiologist would like to see a few more pictures,” she said, just a little less brightly than before. She started pulling out a series of plastic attachments designed to squeeze my ample bosom into various unnatural configurations. “Looks like I’m dirtying up every dish in the kitchen!” she quipped.
Off again to consult the doctor. Back again, after a slightly longer interval than the first time.
“Well, we’re going to go ahead and send you on down to ultrasound.”
Awkward pause as I reached for a kleenex.
“I’m sure she just wants to confirm that the area of density was compressed out by the scan,” she said – or something like that. I have no idea what that meant, but I was apparently supposed to interpret it as encouraging.
I changed out of the pink gown and trudged down the hall to Ultrasound Imaging. Was escorted to a dimly lit, all-white room. Directed to put on an all-white gown (slightly unsettling color scheme; invokes associations with ghosts and angels and other DEAD things).
I had forgotten to remove the little nipple sticker with the little ball bearing on it from my last exam. I tucked it into my purse. Might come in handy as part of a costume if I ever decide to get into pole dancing.
Lying on the exam table (draped in white, natch), I contemplated the possible implications of all this testing. Mostly I dreaded having to tell my mom I have cancer. This was partly because she’s been hounding me years to have a mammogram (“I’ve heard buxom women are at higher risk.”). But mostly it was because she’s almost 90 years old and doesn’t need to hear THAT kind of news. My grandmother died of breast cancer that metastasized into her bones, a painful death that gave my mother a particular terror of breast cancer. It was a fear I never really shared.
The young woman who conducted the ultrasound was pleasant, albeit less aggressively upbeat than the mammogram lady. She was also, inexplicably, wearing blue scrubs. She had me lie on my side, then smeared me up with some kind of gel. I closed my eyes as she moved her probe over my naked flesh – over the breast once, then again. Pause, and a tap on the keyboard under her screen. Around the suspect area again. Another keyboard click. The probe moved to my armpit. More movement. More clicks.
The technician finished up. These professionals are trained not to divulge anything they may or may not see. So I was surprised – and deeply grateful – when she remarked, “I don’t know what was on your mammogram, but I think you’ll get a good result from the ultrasound.”
“I hope so,” I answered, “because this is scary.”
“Yeah, I know,” she agreed.
Back in my car, in the parking lot, I wept. Then I drove to my office, where I found the whole place draped in purple. I remembered that it was Relay For Life day, an annual event to raise awareness of … wait for it … cancer. Oh, irony. You so crazy.
Though the mammogram lady had said they’d try to get results back to me by the end of the day, because otherwise it would be all damned weekend, I didn’t hear anything on Friday. I checked my email frequently over the course of Saturday. Bupkis.
Finally, at 5:00 pm today, an email. A report. Findings benign. Come back next year.
You better believe I will.***
*”Intimations of Mortality” is a poem by Wordsworth about death and stuff.
**Really, she was very nice. But I wasn’t feeling terribly jocular at the moment.
**Now all I have to worry about is rabies. Wait for another post on THAT. My life. Oy.