“So, I looked through your records…” My new doctor began, “And I don’t see any record here of a mammogram.”
“No, there isn’t one.” I admitted hesitantly, with a knot in my stomach. “I have never had one.” She didn’t know it, but she was keying in on one of my biggest fears. The big C. Breast cancer, or any mention of it. I am an expert at avoiding this topic. I braced myself for what I knew was coming.
“That is not acceptable. You are 41 and counting. Your mother died from breast cancer. You need a screening right away.” It was clear that she was not going to take no for an answer. Nor was she going to coddle my fears.
I nodded, with tears burning in the back of my throat. I didn’t trust myself to speak. Instead, I accepted the form she offered to make an appointment. For the next month, that form hung on the fridge. I cringed occasionally when passing it, but did not call to make the appointment. Finally, I could wait no longer. It was time for my monthly labs, and I knew I could not show up in her office without taking action on the mammogram.
I steeled my nerves and made the call. Thursday at 2:00. Perfect. That’s a busy morning, I won’t have time to worry all that much. I visited with a friend that morning who said the obvious thing that I was trying tell myself. “You don’t have cancer Katie. You are making a big deal out of this, and I get it. But seriously, get it over with and stop torturing yourself.”
It’s silly, really, to be afraid of a mammogram. My mom didn’t find out through a mammogram anyway. She was good about her annual appointments, and was current on her tests. Instead, she woke up in the night, after having a dream about her grandmother. Her hand was pressed down hard on her right breast. She could feel a mass that had never been there before. She was scared, and decided to ignore it. Six nights later, it happened again. Clearly, her grandma was persisting with her message. She decided that it was probably nothing, but she should get it checked out anyway. Within days, she was diagnosed with an aggressive, non hereditary form of cancer. Within one week, she had a mastectomy. Within two weeks, chemo progressed. Nine months later, she was pronounced cancer free. Two years after that, cancer returned with a vengeance. Six months later, she died.
I am bitter. I hate cancer and I just don’t want to face the fact that it could happen to me. My usually optimistic self melts into a puddle of fear and avoidance. Sometimes humaning really sucks. When I checked in for my mammo, a tech took me right back. I had to change into a gown and wipe off my deodorant, then join her in front of a giant piece of equipment. She asked me a few questions and recorded my answers on a clipboard.
“Has anyone in your family ever had breast cancer, and if so how old were they?”
“Yes, my mom. She was 52 when she was first diagnosed. She died at 55.” The old, familiar lump rose in my throat.
She looked up sharply. “Oh! Oh, dear. Well then I am so glad that you are here.”
Hey thanks, I thought, sarcastically, swallowing hard. Just what I needed to hear.
Shortly after, I was positioned into the machine for big smush. On cue, my tears started to flow. I couldn’t control them at all. Silently, they slipped from my eyes, one after another, refusing to allow me to mask my emotions. How must she have felt, going through these types of tests, knowing that there was something wrong? She must have been terrified. After the second image, a side view, the tech fussed over her computer. Muttering mostly to herself she said, “Hmmm, they are going to want a second look at that.”
She pushed me deeper into the machine, trying to get my armpit into the shot. “Don’t worry, nothing scary. Since this is a baseline, we sometimes need to verify things. They may call you back in for a second look, but don’t let that scare you. It is usually nothing.” Yeah, sure. Not scary at all.
Within minutes, it was done. I dressed, with the tears still flowing. I walked straight through the lobby without a word to anyone, got in my car and sobbed until I didn’t have any tears left. Those tears reminded me of a cold March day many years ago when held my moms hand in her hospital room as the doctor, through his own tears, told her that her cancer had returned. After he left, I found a rarely used public bathroom and cried just like that. Body shaking, guttural sobs. I drove home sniffling, relieved that it was over and feeling so triggered and sad. I can’t think of a time that I have missed my mom more.
I processed my experience for the better part of the next few days. Why was this experience such a wretched trigger? All I can think is that it drew up a lot of buried grief. After all, when she died, my dad was dying. I dove right into his care, and let that be an convenient excuse to bury my grief, hopefully forever. But I didn’t get that lucky. No one ever does. That grief is going to manifest, somehow, someway.
So, what is the end of this story? There isn’t one. I haven’t heard back from my doctor. I expect that all is well. Even when I do, I know that I can’t go back to the land of denial. I have to do this mammogram thing from time to time. Even if it hurts. Even if is wrenches grief to the surface and forces me to deal with it. I can and I will.