The longest half hour of a woman’s life: the endless seconds between having your breasts painfully squeezed into the chilly, ominous mammography machine and nervously sitting in the waiting area for the radiologist to deliver the results. “Hold your breath,” the technician says during the four pictures she takes of your flattened boobs; in the waiting room, holding your breath is impossible. Trying not to hyperventilate, you attempt to pass the time reading More or Real Simple (no Vogue in sight here). Check cell phone for important messages. Check Facebook. Check mail again, hoping to be distracted even by spam. Play Words With Friends….
A cheerful receptionist refills a bowl of candy. “The good stuff,” she says optimistically, pouring real butterscotch from England over leftovers no one wanted… thick pieces of chocolate with almonds and nugget.
I dive into the stash eagerly.
“Is that supposed to make us feel better for being here?” a cryptic woman next to me whines, as I guiltily enjoy the sweet taste on my tongue. Defiantly I throw a butterscotch into my purse for later.
The annual mammography screening causes great anxiety each year, even for those of us who are low risk. There are lots of things I fear or don’t want, and breast cancer tops the long list. I’ve seen friends survive breast cancer. I know people who have died of breast cancer. I have run (or rather walked) the Susan G. Komen 5K Race For The Cure. I helped my daughter’s high school soccer team fundraise for the run. I eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet…exercise regularly. Doesn’t that prevent me from getting the disease?
Clad in a skimpy robe among other women in identical garb that might be identified as pink if only it were a happier, more pleasant hue, I keep adjusting the front opening to make sure my precious breasts are well covered.
I eat another chocolate. And another. The woman next to me scowls, as if I’m a diabetic on a dangerous sugar binge. It’s not even good chocolate. But it’s delicious.
How many mammograms have I had? More than a dozen. And I know the drill: if the radiologist comes into the waiting area, calls your name, and announces in front of all the other women, “Everything’s fine,” you can leap into the dressing room, joyfully get dressed even though your deodorant has long worn off, and open a celebratory bottle of wine for dinner. (I know red wine reduces heart disease risk and may increase the risk of breast cancer, but tonight I’ll live dangerously.) If the radiologist calls your name, however, and asks you to follow him or her down the hall or into a private room…you’re doomed.
My cell phone is dying from checking it so often. I have no choice but to peruse an outdated People and discover every puking detail of Kate Middleton’s early pregnancy.
The radiologist appears. It’s either Rosenberg, Rosenstein, or Sonerberg, the partners’ names sounding more like my college sorority roster than a radiologist practice. He motions for me to follow him down the hall. Uh oh, I’m doomed! I’ve been lucky for so many years, but this time….
I hear him rattle on about dense breasts. And because he sees the panicked expression on my face, he says, “Everything’s fine, no change from last year…I should’ve said that first.”
Yes, he should have.
“Do you have time for a sonogram?” he asks. “Just a precaution for women with dense breasts.”
Immediately I think of Michael Fuchs. He sat behind me in J.H.S. 234, and whispered into my neck as the teacher tried to teach math, “You’re nothing but a flat broad.” He would be surprised to learn that I have dense breasts. I am too. I’m still not sure how I evolved from a seventh-grade flat broad into a D cup.
I Google Mayoclinic.com: “Dense areas indicate tissue that is more glandular than fatty. Dense areas can also represent cancer.”
Next thing I know my dense breasts are covered in gel, and I have the first sonogram since the one where I discovered my fetus was female. Legs wide open for the camera. The technician grinned and said, “No doubts about gender now.”
“Everything’s fine,” the radiologist informs me as I am unsuccessfully wiping gel from my breasts with a paper cloth too small for the job. “Do you examine your breasts regularly?”
“Yes,” I lie.
“Good. Tonight’s a good time to do it. You’ll know how your breasts feel when they’re normal…for comparison.”
The truth is I’ve always felt too anxious when examining my breasts. I have never understand what normal and not-normal feel like. Vaguely I feel the sense of relief as I dress. Rather than wine, I’m ready for a nap, exhausted from the torment of waiting. Trying to convince myself that I have a year’s reprieve before coming here again. On the way out, I take a breast examination guide…and one more piece of chocolate.
Just five days before, I had a colonoscopy. Everything is fine on that end of my body too, but I was too medicated to feel nervous or relieved. Although I do admit apprehensively asking the anesthesiologist, as he inserted the IV, “Isn’t that the drug that killed Michael Jackson?”
There are too many “ologists” in my life these days. Last week a colonoscopy, this week a mammogram, next week I need to find another cancer screening to endure. A friend ten years older says if not for her doctors’ appointments, she wouldn’t have a social life. Never mind that I have enough good cholesterol to protect an entire baseball team’s arteries, and my mother still played golf in her nineties. But I later cared for her, bedridden with advanced dementia. We used to morbidly joke that the women in our family don’t die from cancer; they just go crazy. The men, on the other hand, have hearts that explode and metastasized prostate cancer….
Recently I noticed that I don’t run down subways stairs to make a train anymore. I no longer cross the street when the light starts blinking. And after being an intrepid traveler for decades, I’ve developed a fear of flying, requiring me to pop an Ativan before I’m sealed into a claustrophobic plane that will surely go down. Probably over an ocean. I’m doomed.
My eighteen-year-old daughter still feels immortal, the way I used to. She makes fun of my husband and me when we talk about our maladies, and refuses to listen to our friends avidly discuss their joint repairs and cataract surgeries. When a friend of hers contracts norovirus, and my daughter tells me it’s not contagious in spite of projectile vomiting and a trip to the ER for IV fluids, I instruct her to wash her hands like someone with OCD, soaping as long as she can sing “Happy Birthday,” to stay away from her friend’s entire dorm floor as if its quarantined, certain that the virus will invade every freshman, knocking them down like germ-filled dominoes. She doesn’t listen, of course, the way I didn’t listen to my mother order me to “put on a sweater because I’m cold” or “never go out with wet hair—you’ll catch pneumonia.”
I text my daughter the results of my mammogram. That’s good, she texts back, can’t wait to have my boobs squashed in a machine someday. She inserts a winking emoticon. Instead of the weekly letter I send to her college mailbox, I put the breast examination guide into an envelope for her to study along with English Lit, Psychology, and Advanced French. But I don’t seal the envelope until I throw in some chocolates. Chocolates are my Xanax.