Accepting my husband’s offer to come with me to the doctor made me feel weak. But I knew it was better to have another set of ears at a time like this. Emotionally it seemed doable on my own, though. I had navigated far worse alone.
Mark and I entered the elevator behind a woman with sparse white hair seated in a wheelchair. The older man pushing her leaned down.
“You okay, Mom?” She nodded.
Without warning, my throat caught. We arrived at our floor and the doors parted. It was as if this same pair had multiplied—older women in ill health being steered around by others—all on their way with an air of reverence and resignation.
We followed the signs to our waiting area. Beneath enormous round light fixtures riddled with tiny spheres, we found seats. For the interior design of a breast cancer clinic, the metaphor was almost funny.
Being in this place made the stakes clear. People showed up here because they didn’t want to die. And I was one of them. Tears spilled over and soaked into my mask.
Mark asked what I was thinking about.
“Nothing. I’m just feeling what it’s like to be here.” After half a lifetime of running from hard emotions, I finally let them in.
The jarring effect of all this shouldn’t have surprised me. The time lapse from routine check-up to Miami Cancer Institute had happened in fast forward.
I’d been putting off the mammogram. The need for all natural everything ruled it out. My midwife suggested having one as a baseline along with thermography.* Every year, the thermogram report landed in my inbox: “low risk,” the latest one two months ago.
For me, the roots of alternative choices run deep. In my home growing up, goldenseal and honey fixed a sore throat. Babies were born at home. Halva was the only candy bar we kids bothered to ask for at the store. And by “store” I mean co-op. These choices connected me to my home, to my mother, to an uncomplicated time before anything bad happened to my family. Natural options gave me back that sense of safety.
When I switched out of my midwife’s busy practice, my new doctor recommended a mammogram. At my next annual visit, she asked about it again. When I admitted I hadn’t gone yet, she left the exam room and asked her staff to schedule the exam for me.
I am not quick to put my faith in doctors. When I looked for someone for my college-bound daughter, Dr. Karmin came highly recommended from patients and friends alike. Jane loved her. It just made sense to see her myself.
When I asked who knit the soft, colorful booties on her stirrups, she said, “I did. I want my patients to be comfortable.” Anyone who cared that much deserved to be trusted.
I went for the mammogram.
Stepping out of the shower a few days ago, the screamy caps of DIAGNOSTIC CENTER FOR WOMEN flashed across my phone. I snatched it from the dressing table and played the voicemail. The soft-spoken radiologist asked me to return the call on his cel. My body stiffened.
I stepped out into my backyard buck naked and tapped in the number. A three centimeter mass with “spiculations” had caused concern. He ordered a biopsy.
The procedure was scheduled immediately. They pulled a good size sample. Negative results were found to be “discordant” with the features on the images. The radiology staff conferred and recommended re-biopsy or excision of the entire mass.
And now here we were, waiting to see the Chief of Breast Surgery, a former colleague of Dr. Karmin’s. I was glad Mark had come. Waiting alone would have been hard.
Dr. Mendez introduced herself and asked about my health, my family, my work. She wanted to hear what I understood of the situation. Then she walked me through it herself. She needed more information. A benign pathology report and the jagged borders of the mass didn’t match up. An MRI with contrast would show whether there is blood flow to the area, which she referred to as “vascularity.”
“It sounds mysterious. Obviously, I would prefer not to be an interesting case,” I said.
“But we are all different. It is our differences that make us beautiful,” she said.
A surgeon who views her job that way is exactly the right person to be doing it.
“No matter how it turns out, going through this changes you. On the other side, you are not the same.”
We left the office with complete confidence in her.
She was right about what this does to a person. In the short time I have been in this liminal space, I feel it. From the second I received that first phone call, my life snapped into sharper focus. In these brief couple of weeks, I have realized some things:
- I can be okay with not being okay. If I allow myself to be human, I will have the capacity for extending that grace to others. People may unwittingly say hurtful things. The more I accept myself, the more capacity I will have to see their good intentions.
- I don’t have to tough it out on my own. As my friend Erica reminded me, I have people now. I can accept a kind offer of support. I can ask my husband to come with me. If you are reading this, you probably care too, so thank you.
- My dear friends who have gone through this with courage and humor are wonderful guides and I am so lucky to have them. I don’t have to open myself up to the opinions of the whole wide world.
- I can ask for what I need. It isn’t pity. It isn’t hearing I’m sorry. Or how hard or scary it must be. I am managing my “what ifs”. Whatever this is, I know it is meant to happen exactly this way. As my smart friend Lisa says, “breast cancer is a highly treatable disease.” I have a team of brilliant women in my corner. The one who will make the calls carries the name of my own brilliant daughter Jane. Tell me that’s not magic.
- We are all beautiful. This process will simply show me more of who I really am.
Thank you in advance for sending me good thoughts. I know I am going to be just fine.
When you stay curious and calm, allowing yourself to be fully human, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay. Even when it’s not.
Have you had an experience that made you present to your life unlike any other? What was it like? What did you learn? Have you hung on to the lessons?
* In case you aren’t sure what thermography is, here’s how I learned about it. Not that I endorse them, obviously: https://www.drnorthrup.com/best-breast-cancer-screening-tests/