The technician leaves me with my right breast squeezed between hard plastic panels to scoot back and protect herself behind the see-through screen. While she shoots radioactive x-rays through me, I watch her expression. She is a pro. Nothing. I ask, "So how does it look?"
"I just take the pictures. Don't interpret them."
My family doctor calls the next morning to say there is something suspicious on the mammogram. "Suspicious" has never been used to describe me.
I feel a tightening in my stomach and remember when my friend Jean died of breast cancer. She kept waiting for a sign from God that everything would be all right, and she was willing to believe almost anything. A parking space at the mall. A successful soufflé. A really good haircut. She had an expensive pedicure ten days before she died.
I phone my sister Sheila to ask if she can go with me for the repeat mammogram. My husband Ted says he'd be happy to go, and I don't want to hurt his feelings, but this feels like a sister thing.
We drive out to the new Munson Breast Health Center and for some reason, I feel extremely irritated that there is a whole center named for sensitive female parts. Is this a sexist thing? Is there a men's penis center somewhere, perhaps decorated in green and brown with stacks of Sports Illustrated and Michigan Hunter on square side tables? Would their robes open from the front?
I am led to large pink cubby holes filled with neatly folded (and ironed?) robes with two ties across open backs. Like a quick-change for the stage. The outfits start with size medium. Are small women less likely to get cancer? I'm a small woman, so that could be a good sign.
With my best bra rolled inside my slacks and shirt, I exit the dressing room and put my clothes into a lockless locker. I make a note of the number, say it to myself silently, being fairly certain I will forget it on my way out. If the lockers are not secure, why the doors? I know I'll have to open them like kitchen cupboards at a friend's house, trying to locate the coffee mugs.
A large flat-screen television blares from one wall. As always, there is a crisis on CNN. Diversion for the white-faced women clutching magazines open to the same page for way too long. The magazines cover all age spans-Seventeen, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and AARP. I pick up the copy of Redbook and flip through. Until this moment, I have never noticed how many ads show women's breasts.
I look up at CNN and wonder how the glamour girls on television get mammograms with those implants.
Sheila tries to keep it light, asks if I want her to bring a green salad instead of macaroni to dinner on Sunday. Asks if I've heard from mother recently. She reaches into the tub of "compliments of" water bottles and hands me one, takes one herself. We're both thirsty. I'd rather be having wine on the sofa in front of an old movie.
The nurse calls my name, and I follow her down the hall toward the machines. This time there are four candid shots from each angle, a lot of tugging, pushing, flattening, and apologizing. I act nonchalant with my arm up across the bar, not talking but smiling a little so she won't think she's hurting me. But she is.
Then back to the waiting room, more CNN headlines about floods, wild fires, plane crashes. Tragedy everywhere. That could be a bad sign.
The technician who took the pictures opens a different door and beckons me. The waiting room reminds me of a quiz show with three doors. So far, I know what is behind doors number one and number two.
Sheila says, "Shall I come?" and the nurse says "That would be good." I know it's not.
We are led to another room where a friendly woman sits at a round table by a wall screen showing a black and white picture that she claims is my right breast. It looks mottled and stringy, and I can't tell anything by staring at it. The woman introduces herself as a coordinator of breast health, and I wonder if she can tell people that at parties. She invites Sheila and me to join her at a small round table. For a moment it feels cozy to be sitting in a small room with my sister and this new friend.
The radiologist enters the room wearing rumpled blue pajamas. He pulls out a pad of paper and jabs the sharp tip of a #2 pencil, leaving small marks that look like a stellar constellation, close together in the center, farther apart at the edges. "You have some tiny calcifications," he says, and this is probably nothing to worry about. There's only a 20% chance that this is cancer."
"We'll have to do a biopsy."
I think about the beginning vocabulary class I taught, how we divided words into syllables and puzzled out the meanings. I know "bio" means "life" but what does "opsy" mean? Is it related to "autopsy"? I realize the words rhyme and hope that is not a bad sign.
"We'll do it as soon as possible," the radiologist continues, "We know how worrisome this can be." I doubt if he does, and I want him out of the room.
"We can do a needle biopsy and have you finished in just a few hours. Be sure to bring a support person with you."
Sheila squeezes my hand, but I know that Ted will want to be with me for the next step. I want that too.
I wonder what the radiologist means by "finished."
I call Ted on my cell from the parking lot. When I tell him I have to have a biopsy, he takes a long time to respond, and I wonder if I've lost the connection. Then he says, "Don't worry. We'll get through this."
Part of me wants to slap him, and I don't know why.
At home, I call my mother, our older son and his wife, our younger son. "I am going to the hospital," I say, "to have the doctor stick a big fat needle into my right breast and suck out some of my fragile tissue and put it under a microscope and maybe cut off my breast and then I may have chemo and lose all my hair, and then I will probably die."
"My procedure will be on Monday," I say, in my most cheerful voice. "Nothing to worry about. Most of these biopsies are benign, only a 20% chance of cancer." I remember being in the top 20% of my high school graduating class. I hope that's not a bad sign.
Will I lose all my hair? If I do, I will buy a very expensive wig, natural hair, maybe even blonde for a change. Not a cheesy Paula Young version from the catalogue. And I will request natural-looking makeup, not the blue eyeliner and dark lip liner they put on Jean. Maybe lip gloss and a little powder. Would my nose be shiny at that point? Maybe a little blush.
Everything is going to be fine. It really is.
Ted drives me to the hospital at 9:30 a.m. In deference to me, he hasn't had coffee either, and I see him eye the café in the corner.
The upstairs technician racks me on the machine again so the radiologist can insert a small wire into my breast and shoot blue dye. Before putting the needle in, he says, "Just a pinch here" and I wonder if he's ever been pinched. It does not feel like a pinch. "You may have blue urine tonight," he adds.
Let's see, yellow from dehydration and blue from dye-the result may be green. That's a good thing to know in advance.
He curls the wire around on top of my breast like a piece of limp spaghetti, tapes it down, and a pony tail seats me in a wheelchair. I tell the nurse I thought there might be an ultrasound when I saw the low couch in the room, and she laughs, "We don't tell patients in advance, but a lot of women faint."
I feel light headed.
The pony tail drives me into the elevator for the trip down to pre-op, a small private room with children's toys and two chairs. A nurse wheels in a steel coat rack with a hanging bag of something that looks like healthy urine and puts a needle into my arm, tapes it down. "Just in case," she says.
I am seated in a recliner like the one my dad has in front of his television, covered with warm flannel blankets, and interrogated by three people who don't seem to communicate with each other, since they all ask exactly the same questions and write down the answers. I am tempted to make up some different responses to see if they notice, but I hold back. This may not be a good time. The door opening and shutting and the repetition make me smile, though, and the nurse says, "Have you taken Valium? You seem calm and relaxed."
I could have had Valium?
"Would you like your husband in here with you while you wait?" she asks. "We encourage that support." For a moment, I wonder if I'd rather be alone to decide on some obituary details.
I want to ponder, but I don't want the nurse to think Ted and I are having marital problems. "Yes, please bring him in."
Every time a nurse or doctor leaves the pre-op room Ted and I now share, they shut the door firmly. I want it left open and hope I am not developing claustrophobia. I know what phobia is, but I can't remember what claustro means. Is it from "closet"? People afraid of confined spaces, like closets? Or caskets?
One nurse comes in to tell me that "we" are going to have a light sedation, if that is okay with me. I will be "out" but may hear voices during the operation. I am not to be alarmed. If I feel any pain, I am to speak up at once.
"Well, if you can talk," she adds.
We wait longer, much longer than the predicted fifteen minutes, and I am wondering if this is a bad sign.
When it is time to go in for surgery, Ted kisses me ardently, and the nurse looks away. Is that a bad sign? I am told to walk to the surgical arena.
"It's an experiment. We like to make patients feel as much in control as possible."
I am not in control, and I know it, and I don't like it. I pad down the hall, the plastic strips on the bottom of my hospital slipper-socks sticking just a little with each step. I remember the movie The Green Mile. I am dragging my hatrack.
I climb onto the surgical table and see the doctor swallow a yawn before he smiles. He looks tired. Maybe this should wait until he is more rested. I start to suggest the delay, but sink into dark.
Then I surface to light and feel a pull in my right breast. I don't know where I am. Ted is beside me, and everything looks too bright and startling. The IV is pulled from my arm. Someone hands me my clothes. I can go. The doctor will call me.
Sheila calls the next day. She bought me a gift certificate for a pedicure. She doesn't know about Jean's final pedicure, and I am not mean enough to turn down her gift. I hope the pedicure is not a bad sign.
The nail technician looks eighteen but is probably twenty-one. She asks me what color I'd like on my toenails. I think a moment. Instead of the pale pink I usually wear, I choose "Crimson Kiss."
Her nametag says "Heather," and she asks if I'd like a white rose appliquéd on my big toe. "Lots of women your age are having it done," she chirps. I don't want to appear old-fashioned, so I say yes.
I want to clean the whole house but have been told I can't vacuum for a week, so I wash clothes. I strip our bed, the dog's bed, gather all the towels from the bathrooms and the kitchen. That makes three loads and takes up some of the day. From Here to Eternity is on AMC, and I hope that's not a bad sign.
Sheila comes over after work with a tuna-noodle casserole. Didn't they serve that at Jean's funeral? Sheila doesn't ask, but she knows I would tell her if I'd heard anything.
Day three, eight a.m., and I have waited long enough. I am mad. Can't someone take just two minutes to call? Are they all too busy to do that? I inhale and start to dial the doctor's office.
I wish I had not quit smoking. If I have a malignancy, I may take up smoking again. What would be the point of not smoking if I already have cancer? I hang up the phone and check the bottom drawer in my bathroom. Yes, half a pack. I light one and go back to the phone.
I use my firm, pleasant, measured, calm voice. Have they had any word yet on my biopsy? I hear some rustling in the background, and the nurse picks up the phone.
I wander out to the back yard and sit on a chaise. My whole body is numb. My ears are ringing. I feel a tug in my right breast and look at the long ash on my cigarette. I need to make some calls.
Ted stands up from his gardening and walks toward me holding the big steel watering can. His face looks strained. This has been hard on him.
I stub out my cigarette and grin.
"Why don't you come over here, sweetie, and water that little flower on my toe?"
Trudy Carpenter recently retired from teaching developmental writing at an urban community college and moved to northern Michigan.