Wrapped in a rose colored robe, I tucked my purse into the individual cupboards, already feeling a sense of relaxation. Another kind, smiling face ushered me into the waiting room, warmly lit and just the right temperature. After declining a polite offer of beverage from the selection before me I continued to unwind ahead of my appointment. The attendant called my name and escorted me down the hall. As we walked I shared how tranquil I felt. She stopped abruptly her face curled in confusion “Is this your first mammogram?” she asked. I nodded.
Parenting four young children and working full time, as does my husband, leaves little room for things like pampering. So to me, the first moments of my first mammogram truly was like visiting a spa. The procedure itself was not uncomfortable for me which I know is in stark contrast to many women. Perhaps this was by virtue of having been so physically altered by my three pregnancies the last of which was twins. Truth be told the front of my body just hangs on me like a loose shirt. The benefit of this was that I could continue the illusion of this being a resort visit rather than my inaugural annual mammogram having turned forty earlier in the year.
Just hours after I returned home came the call. They asked me to come back the next day for a follow up scan. I went with only slight concern and had an equally pleasant experience. The physician noted some points on the scans and suggested given my health and history that I just come again for a follow up in a handful of months.
Before I headed to the office I texted my mentor that I had joined the ‘six month mammogram club’, she being a breast cancer survivor with a wonderful sense of humor. Later when we spoke in person she gently posed what would be the pivotal question; had I thought about getting a second opinion? I hadn’t, and to be honest the idea of doing so felt like I would be too much of a bother. She thoughtfully encouraged me to consider and offered to connect me with her breast health center. It was just the right blend of kindness and nudging I needed.
Within a day I found myself sitting in another doctor’s office carrying digital copies of my scans. While the doctor was busy reviewing the files I was already counting the minutes until I could be eating lunch in my office. I had spent that morning taking my four children to their long scheduled back to back dental cleanings not expecting to be at my own appointment - I was focused on the ramen packet in my purse not test results.
The doctor returned after a short while asked me to join her to look at my scans. We sat in a darkened room lined with computers glowing black and white. As I followed the tip of her pen moving across the screen from minuscule white dot to minuscule white dot counting more than triple the first analysis had recorded, it was clear that this was a more complete picture. And then her pen pointed to a second region and with as many dots. She thoughtfully articulated her impression, explaining that the presence and patterns of pixels begged enough questions to warrant a closer look.
Now this story isn’t a sad story. It’s not a sob story. It’s a story of gratitude because in my case, the system worked. Even before I or my doctor knew what those dots were on a cellular level, we both said aloud that this was the best possible outcome. Whatever it was, it was early and we caught it. Even if the diagnosis was dire, finding out at this stage meant that the treatment options were effective. This calm was under-girded by a recent shift in paradigm I had undergone about what merits concern, having lost dear ones to unutterably vicious cancers and unexpected tragedy. What more, the sheer experience of access to healthcare let alone having choices was another reminder to be thankful, and to remember that so many don’t though I believe firmly they should. And I felt gratitude for my husband, family, and friends that would support me whatever the results would be.
We left the bank of screens and headed straight to an exam room to start what would be a whirlwind of tests over several days: sonogram, stereoscopic biopsies, bilateral MRI, ultrasound, genetic test. I visited the center often enough to be recognizable by the intake staff, to learn that one of them was planning a holiday to Israel, and then was able to ask her upon her return how the trip went. Apparently it was fantastic. Other than battling my primal dislike of being confined in a tube - which I managed by speed singing She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain in my head between recounting hymnal lyrics and praying for loved ones - I was able to remain grateful. At the end of it all the doctor determined that the tissue was not cancerous but that it was atypical which meant that a lumpectomy was in order.
I’m humbled by a diagnosis that has kept me from a much more difficult story that many others have had to endure. As I wait for my surgery I’m also grateful for the opportunity to use this not-so-drastic experience to remind others to take care of themselves. Among the array of urgent issues rightfully competing for our attention, and amidst our personal commitments, I’d love to encourage you to make the appointment. Carve out time to schedule that routine exam or scan, call that doctor, and go prepared with curiosity and armed with gratitude. Make the appointment. Ask the questions.