The room is dim and I sit on a plastic chair. My purse is on my lap. I’m hunched over a little, holding my bag closed at the top with two clenched fists—a caricature of an old lady. I have a hospital gown on backward. I tied all the strings every which way in order to keep myself from being exposed while walking from the dressing room down to the exam room. It’s only women here, and it’s nothing they don’t see every minute of every day, but still. Propriety.
The technician in dark grey scrubs introduces herself. Checks my name and birthdate. She stands with my paperwork in her hands in front of her and says, “And you’re here because …”
It’s not a question so much as a fill in the blank.
There is no lump. No out of the norm pain. “I’m 40,” I reply in a voice of resignation. “I mean, I turned 40 in February and my Ob-Gyn said it was time for my first mammogram. But it’s taken me a while to make the appointment.”
She nods. “That’s normal.”
“I canceled once,” I admit.
“Yeah,” she says warmly. “It’s good to get this done.”
I know. I know, I know, I know. I know. I’ve told myself it’s good to get this done a thousand times before today. I’ve fed this line to my own patients, my own family, my own friends. Just get checked out, I’ve said. It’s so good to have a baseline! I’ve chirped. You want to know what you’re dealing with, I’ve insisted.
But is it? I mean, is it really? Good to know, that is. Is it good to know if you have something horrible growing inside you, something mean and ugly and worth swearing at and crying over and losing your hair for?
I’d made the appointment, the first one (the one I ended up canceling) quickly. As if I understood emotions are also subject to laws of inertia.
I had an annual visit with my Ob-Gyn on a Thursday and called the number she gave me shortly after I returned home. Because it’s good to get this test and It’ll probably be months before I can be seen. But instead, within ten minutes, I had a 7 a.m. appointment five days later.
Yet by the time Tuesday rolled around, there were so many reasons not to go: will I make it back in time for Chris to leave for work? Traffic is going to be awful. Why did I, a notorious anti-morning person, think this ‘first appointment of the day’ thing was a good idea? They said they have tons of openings; I can do this at a better time.
Except there never seems to be a better time for an appointment which may require you to answer a phone call relaying that they want you to come in to receive your test results in person, or that the findings were questionable and they want more images, or to have the rest of your life altered by this one singular decision.
I didn’t make another appointment for a different day or a later time. Because my preschool hours were full, at least this is what I remember telling myself. And I didn’t want to ask my husband to take off work. And I didn’t want to get a babysitter. And really, It would be better to wait to get bad news until after the summer, don’t you think?
I’ve had three friends find out they had breast cancer from their routine, I-just-turned-40-so-here-I-am mammograms. Their stories differ and so did their treatments. Thank God, all three are cancer-free and well today. But for a time, their worlds stopped.
And I wasn’t ready for my world to stop. So I slipped the doctor’s piece of paper into the back pocket of my planner and left it there long enough to forget about it.
“It’s good to get a baseline,” the technician says. “Some people wait for years to get this done.” She pauses and our eyes meet. “Some people wait too long.”
I know what she’s saying. But it’s hard being the one who has to put on the gown. It’s hard to make the time to stand with your feet square and hold your arms out with your hands gripping the edges of a machine that will take pictures of the part of your body that is flattening to the point of unbelief while your face is smashed up against a clear plastic screen; to hold your breath and not move and—keep your shoulders relaxed!—with your torso turned just so.
It’s hard to find the time to make an appointment to see if your life will change forever.
Not knowing felt easier. Not better, just easier.
“You’re brave,” she says with conviction. I nod and try to swallow over the small lump growing in my throat. Her declaration makes an impression on my heart, as if I were made of play dough and her words were a fat thumbprint in the middle.
Because the truth is, I am not afraid of getting cancer and dying. I’m not scared to find out something malevolent is growing inside of me. At least this is what I tell myself. Because in the most horrible way, it would feel almost fitting; there is no reason why it shouldn’t be me.
I do not live ignorant of the fact that mothers can get diagnoses which alter the world around which they are the center.
I live every single day alongside the truth that mothers do die. Little girls do grow up and try on wedding dresses alone, or go with friends, and are asked “Honey! Where is your mom?!” one too many times, so she will ask her aunts to come along. That those girls graduate college with honor cords around their necks and holes in their hearts. That dark-haired babies are born to those motherless women and will only know their Grandma through the pictures their parents show and the stories we tell.
I know firsthand that a woman can be middle-aged and wipe tears from her brown eyes on a no big deal Saturday morning, lying in bed next to her husband, simply because she hears four children squabbling in the living room and envisions them, years later, playfully teasing each other around a dinner table as adults. She knows there is no guarantee she will be with them in the future. She cries because she doesn’t want to miss their lives. Or worse, to be the cause of their grief.
The truth is, a woman can turn forty and see behind her and in front of her, as if she’s squeezed tight within the passage area between train cars. With little kids who aren’t that little in the window behind her and growing kids who aren’t yet so big and independent in the window before her; with a career she stepped away from at her back and little more than a knowing to step toward opportunities at her front. She stands in the middle of what was and what could be.
She’s grateful for where life’s brought her, while gripping to a deep, fierce desire she’s afraid to admit: That she will be granted time.
I want, so badly, to be brave.
My mother died from a different type of cancer. But this test, the unknown results and what it will mean for my children and the man with the blue eyes I’ve loved since I was a teenager, takes my breath away all the same.
The scans are complete in less time than it took to drive here. I’ll get the results in three to five days and Just know it’s not unusual to get called back for more imaging, she says. It’s very common.
Yes, I acknowledge, it is very common. Then there is a prick of guilt: I hope I didn’t wait too long.
“Thank you,” I say, trying to express how genuinely cared for I feel by her—and not just because she’s one of a small group of adults (my husband, a lactation consultant, and the boutiquey bra shop lady who had zero qualms about making sure I had a “correct fit”) who has ever been that up-close and personal with my breasts.
I change back into my boring-yet-expensive bra and striped shirt in the dressing room, drop the gown into the “used” bin. I grab a freebie chapstick and a wrapped mint (it’s pink) on my way out of the lobby. I open my car door, sit down, and take a deep breath.
On the ride home, I think about what it means to be brave. And what I will do with the rest of my life.
Author’s note: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. Because some women with breast cancer have no symptoms, we encourage you to talk to your doctor about risk factors and the right screening plan for early detection.
My results came back two days after the test with a note from my doctor stating, “Your mammogram is reassuring.”
Photo by Lottie Caiella.