The Measure Of Time

English: Woman undergoing a mammogram of the r...

English: Woman undergoing a mammogram of the right breast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people measure how quickly time goes by with the start of a new year, January 1st, others by  their birthday, or the start of school. I measure how quickly the year goes by at my annual mammogram appointment, where I sit in that same musty, intolerable room, sweating with the other women, waiting for our names to be called.

I am not the measure of confidence, breezy, smiling with designer shoes and handbag when I go in but I admire the women who seem to be that way. Count me out. I go, this time with soft, well-worn gray pants, and a loose striped shirt, my hair in two short pig-tails to get it away from my face, my face showing fear and anxiety. The day before this I had a grueling day at The Balance Center so I thought, perhaps, I could catch a break today. Yeah, right.

They call my name rather quickly and for that I am grateful, I have a friendly technician who realizes I have lost weight, by the size of my breasts? Whatever. She finishes the films and I sit down and wait for my name to be called, imagining my relieved smile, walking out the door, perhaps celebrating with a pumpkin spiced latte from Starbucks. No such luck.

After waiting another fifteen minutes, they call my name again and I proceed to the doctor but unfortunately that is not where they want me to go. Another technician tells me the doctor wants a repeat of some of the films, actually of my right breast and my heart plummets to my feet. I feel weak so I try to hang on to the bar on top of the machine and I try to ask  the technician questions but she gives me no answers. I am already trying to accept my fate and think of myself categorically planning the next step. Why me? Why not me? No one is exempt from this horrible disease, I don’t have any lucky charm or special karma, it’s really a number’s game, isn’t it?

The free pink pens and pink peppermints on the table don’t do much to help my nerves or anyone else’s, I don’t see many people taking the free samples. I take a pen and pop a peppermint in my mouth for the sugar. After another twenty minutes, yet again, a different technician calls my name and I steel myself for the news of the radiologist good or bad, I will be strong, I will cope, not that I have a choice.

Instead of seeing the radiologist, this technician whisks me into the ultra-sound room and focuses heavily on my right breast. I’m not an idiot, the doctor wanted extra pictures of my right breast and the technician is spending 80 percent of her time trying to get clear pictures of my right breast. I timidly ask politely from the technician if there is anything she can tell me. Cool as a cucumber, she says, somewhat haughtily, “the doctor will tell you the results” she looks like she’s 15 and I know it’s her job but again, patient sensitivity is sorely lacking.

She tells me NOT to get dressed (not a good sign, I think) and she will show this to the doctor. I get dressed anyway. After ten minutes she comes in and says she will take me to the doctor. I don’t remember walking there, I just remember being there. Inside a jovial sounding man who I can now image only as Owen Hunt from “Grey’s Anatomy” says “take a seat.” I remain standing because I cannot move. He said ‘you’re fine.” “What?” I ask? He repeats  in a casual, breezy tone, ” you’re fine.” I find my voice and say “what about all the extra pictures and the ultra sound and the emphasis on the right breast?” He leans back in his chair and laughs, “Oh, you have a lymph node there but you’ve had the same one for the last ten years, nothing to worry about. Come on now, not even a smile?” I just stare. Once again, he asks “can I just have one smile before you leave?” I turn my back, and walk quietly out the door.

I’m still in shock but I am grateful.

The Soul Twin

English: aima n baby boy

English: aima n baby boy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My son, please sit down,  I need to tell you something. Nothing is wrong, dear, please do not worry. It is something that happened before you were born, I have carried it in my heart, my secret heart for many years. I am old now but I wish for you to know something of our past.

You know your father and I tried for over two and a half years to get pregnant. I was so sad thinking I could never have a baby. Yes, I went to a big city and had all kinds of tests and shots and drugs and procedures but I would have done anything to have you and I knew someday I would. Now, you, Dad and your sister are atheists but I am certainly not. One night I had a dream and God looked down at me from Heaven and He said, “It will take a little more time but you will have a baby and it will be a boy.” God’s message to me was all I needed to keep going and I believed in  this completely. I still, as you know, do.

Months later I got the call. Two nurses were on the phone telling me I was pregnant. There was not a happier person in this world. I remember I closed the door, dropped to my knees, said a prayer of thanks and sobbed with joy. I was in a daze the rest of the afternoon. Immediately my hand cupped my tiny belly like a fluttering butterfly. I told your father in person and he was in shock; I had to repeat the joyous news three times before it sunk in.

Three weeks later, and still I had told no one about my pregnancy except our families. After two and a half years of trying to get pregnant we wanted to wait three months, in our culture that is what we did. One day, I went to the bathroom and as I pulled down my underwear I saw spotting. I was very calm, I called the doctor’s office and they told me to come in immediately.

I got in my car as if I was in a dream, “be brave and strong, be brave and strong” I whispered to you as I headed to the clinic. By the time I got there they rushed me into the ultra sound room but this time there was a lot of blood in my underwear.  I remember saying calmly “this does not look good.” I was still in the room and then the senior nurse spoke up and said  “Wait, look right here, it’s a heartbeat, your baby is fine.” I was so relieved, so happy to see your little heart beating that I thought of nothing else. You were alright, safe inside of me. After a few minutes I asked what happened? They told me that my hormone levels had been very high so that could have been an indication of a twin or perhaps another unhealthy fetus, they were never sure.  Apparently this happens to women all the time many not even noticing the passing of an embryo.

I tried to feel sad and guilty but I couldn’t. You were still inside me and you were safe. I went home to lie down and take it easy. I tried to have feelings if it had been a twin but I couldn’t force myself to feel loss when I didn’t feel it. I had you, my baby, still inside me and that meant everything to me. We were born to be with one another. Your father and I would finish our sentences always saying: “If we should be so blessed” and we were, with you, our first son.

The only reference I have to this is a pair of small twin purple bears that I keep hidden in my bedroom closet. A psychic once said I had a baby floating in the universe that could not go to heaven because he did not have a name and out of my mouth and hers, the name Steven came. His soul was then at peace.

You were in my arms and we were a family. Twenty one months later your beautiful little sister was born, naturally, meant to join our family. Now our family was complete. I needed to tell this story to someone and it belongs to you. I had everything I wanted, a boy and then a girl but my love story is just about over, yours is barely beginning. Take with this what you want and now we can bury the past and only look to the future.

*M Stands For Mammogram

Breast cancer awareness

Breast cancer awareness (Photo credit: AslanMedia)

I  sit on the faded pink chairs, I know from every year before this, where the greasy stains are. The same old tattered magazines and breast cancer pamphlets are on the table. I sit in the chair facing forward as if I was on a train, leaving nowhere fast. I measure my time annually by these mammogram appointments. I can’t believe it’s been a year already.

I am given the thin, green hospital robe and the same monotone speech, no body wash, no cream soaps, no deodorant and I make the same stupid joke every year in my head (“that’s going to be worse for you than me.”)  I had a lump removed from my breast when I was 25, luckily it was benign but I remember the shock, and the experience in detail. I remember that the surgeon made me cry and the nurses comforted me. I’ve had a mammogram every year since. I am now 56 years old.

I know the instructions by heart but as soon as they tell me what to do, I forget. As soon as the nurse closes the curtain that makes that whoosh-metallic sound, I have no idea which way to put the gown on, my hands shake and I am nervous. I tell myself that I am sure everyone else here is anxious but that gives me no comfort. I wish I could be the type of person that could hide my feelings but I would need a full lobotomy for that. My feelings are seen from a mile away, they glow in neon orange lights like a flashing danger sign.

Finally it is my turn. A technician leads me into the mammogram room, I don’t complain about the discomfort ever and then I go back to the waiting room. I wait a long time, in fact I notice that all the women who I had been with have already left. There are a new batch of women here, waiting to be called in, having their tests and waiting with me. One by one they are leaving too. Now, I am really worried, this does not feel right.There are no nurses to ask, they only come in sporadically but as soon as I see one I ask her politely to please find out what is going on. She is kind (and you remember every kind word) and tells me they need two more pictures. They take two more pictures. Once again I am in the waiting room now waiting for my ultra sound. In every year before they have called me into the radiologist for the results of my mammogram BEFORE the ultra sound but not today. When, after thirty minutes, the nurse tells me to come for my ultra sound, I ask her the results of my mammogram and she says “we NEVER tell that to the patient, the radiologist tells you after both tests.” I have come here for the last fifteen years and it’s never been done like that but I am too weak to argue.

Once in the ultra sound room, the technician does a thorough job and I noticed her focusing, over and over my right breast. I asked if there was anything wrong and she laughed and said “I can’t tell you but the radiologist will give you the information.” “Don’t get dressed” she says as she leaves and I know that is a standard procedure. As if I was in a bad dream the technician comes back and says the radiologist wants a few more pictures. I have been here for three hours and I am trying very hard not to weep with exhaustion and fear.

Finally, they call my name for the radiologist. My whole body is shaking and my legs feel like jello. I hold on to the walls for support. The radiologist says glibly “You’re fine.” “Yeah, you’re fine, no changes from last year, good to go for another year.”He give me a slip of paper and with a wave of his hand he encourages me to leave. I had lost my voice. I finally managed to ask about the nodule and he said they had compared it and nothing changed.

Thinking back I was in shock; it reminded me of the time when I did have a lump in my breast and it had to be removed.I remembered having to wait so long for the biopsy, more than a week. I knew I had heard good news today but it hadn’t sunk in yet. I walked back to the changing room with fingers trembling and slowly changed back into my clothes. I was grateful, believe me I was grateful; my emotions just hadn’t caught up just yet.

*Please note that more women die of heart failure than all cancers combined. My breast surgeon told me that one day, smirking and grinning widely, telling me it was “good for his business.” Visit Carolyn Thomas’ page Heartsisters.org for more information.

The Measure Of Time

Hour Glass

When I was twelve I measured time in two-week increments. Every other Wednesday night my friend Brian and I would have to go to our orthodontist appointment. One of our dad’s always drove us.  I renamed the orthodontist “Dr. Tuna Fish Hands” since he apparently had tuna salad for dinner, twice a month, right before we came. It took years for me to ever eat tuna again.

Now, I measure time in annual mammograms. It seems like just when I thought I was in the clear for another year, it’s October again and I am sitting with other anxious women, draped in thin navy blue robes. no deodorant or powder allowed. I feel the same dread every year; I feel nauseous and anxious and scared. If I get cleared I then worry about my mother and my sister.

I woke up at five in the morning, last week, a little early for my 8 am appointment. I couldn’t go back to sleep so I took my dog out for a walk in the early morning darkness. After that, I huddled in Starbucks to drink a very strong cup of coffee for much-needed energy. I then drove to the lab at the medical center and at 7:45 I wrote my name down on the appointment list. Twenty minutes later, they called my name, a couple of other women were called too.

We all had to change and then we sat together in a tiny corner of the room. My neighbor’s foot shook, the woman across from me was sighing heavily, I did both. I couldn’t concentrate on reading even though I brought a book. I seem to do that every year and I never get past the first two sentences.  Finally, they called my name to go into the Mammography room. I don’t care about the physical discomfort at all, just the results. I went back to the room and waited for the results. My name was not called. I saw a new batch of women come and go with relieved smiles happily clutching their piece of paper which basically says “No Change, See You In A Year.”

I waited and waited some more. Two more groups of anxious looking women came in and left and I was still sitting there focusing on accepting my fate and concentrating on breathing deeply. Finally, after an hour and a half, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I asked the nurse if I could speak to the radiologist. She rolled her eyes and said “We don’t do it that way, you have to wait.” I had had it by then so I said politely, “I would like to see him, please, for just for a second.” She wasn’t happy; she rolled her eyes up inside her head, sighed and slammed the office door but she did come back to get me a minute later.

The doctor sat leaning back on his chair as if he was sunbathing in Honolulu. I didn’t even have to speak when he offhandedly said “Oh, everything is just fine, it’s exactly like last year’s.”  Um, what?  I was too stunned to feel relieved but finally mustered up the courage to ask why I had to wait an hour and a half for the news? “You are scheduled for an ultra-sound soon, he droned, so I thought we would wait to see the whole picture.” In a nice tone of voice I said, “I’ve been coming here for fifteen years and the doctor has always seen me in-between the tests and told me the results.” His answer? “NO, we never do it that way.” “Are you kidding me” I wanted to yell? I KNOW they do it like this, I’ve had it done for the past fifteen years.” He shook his head no. Apparently, either the rules changed or he didn’t want to take the extra step. I couldn’t fight the system any longer. I was sent back to wait for my ultra-sound.

The ultra-sound took another forty minutes and I didn’t utter a sound. I understand that even if it feels like they have been over the same spot a thousand times, it is their job to be thorough. I took some more deep breaths even though I lay tilted on the side of the examining table, close to the edge. I felt if I had to move another inch I would land on the floor, breaking ribs and fracturing an ankle or two.

Finally, the ultra-sound was complete. I was sent back to the jolly radiologist, now with a Pina Colada in his hand (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and he said “everything is perfect”  and bid me adieu. It had been over two and a half hours, dozens of women had come and gone. I walked to the changing room to retrieve my clothing; I was so tired and spent, it was hard to accept the happiness. As I walked through the bright red exit door sign, I paused and gave my personal thanks for this year’s reprieve and then limped to my car. Time of appointment 8AM, time I left 11:00 AM but I’m not complaining, I can’t. Because between my shaking fingers, I too clutched a piece of paper that said “See you next year.”