Time stands still: my six-month mammogram

Time stands still in the radiology waiting room. You sit, half-dressed, torso lightly covered in a wrap that still leaves you shivering in the artificial cold of the medical building. Fake lighting, bland colors, and non-description artwork illustrate the scene, as though somehow the artificiality will make it better. When you emerge into bright daylight, blinking and groping for sunglasses, the myriad of nature’s colors overwhelm and remind you that the visit was something not real.

The exam itself is like something from a bad science fiction film. Machines that gently hum move with ornate precision at the touch of foot pedals. They take pictures in seconds that used to take minutes or longer to develop, but just because the picture emerges so soon doesn’t mean that its meaning is so rapidly evident. You sit. And you wait. And then you wait some more.

If you’re lucky, the tech comes back quickly to inform you that you can get dressed and go on with your day. If you’re less lucky, they want more pictures. Maybe it will mean more time with the mean machine that treats breasts like they’re made of silly putty, squishing them into awkward shapes in some vain attempt to remove one dimension from your form. Maybe it will mean that you need an ultrasound instead – a rendezvous with a microphone-shaped paddle and goo that feels like otherworldly slime. You never understand the pictures presented on the screen. We aren’t meant to see inside ourselves so literally unless something is wrong, and even then what is opaque seems clear – yet remains opaque on many levels.

Today, I had an epic wait after my first set of pictures. Someone was less lucky than I; they had a biopsy and the radiologist looked over those images at length. I’m sad and tired and annoyed, but I’m not the person who was biopsied, so I count my blessings and hold my tongue. The tech doing my second set of pictures manhandles me more but the machine hurts less. I can’t explain it. I’m just sadness and anxiety. She tries to reassure me that the pictures are just additional details, but I still just want to run away.

When family members have had breast cancer, it makes you want to know whether you will get it, but – at the same time – you don’t want to know.

Today, I’m lucky. I escape without an ultrasound. I escape with the order to come back in six months, hopefully to be back on an annual cycle again. I’m sent away with the words “You are stable”. That’s not the same as “You’re clean”. That’s “no additional growth at this time” or “we will keep an eye on things”.

I walk to my car, almost 2-1/2 hours after I arrived. I know I’ll be back in six months. I hope my results are no worse. For a child of a survivor, for the niece of a two-time survivor (who ultimately succumbed to lung cancer), “no worse” is a victory.

But I will try to spend tonight by myself, secluding myself from family and friends, because even with “no worse” results, I’m emotionally spent. I’m wrung out like a washcloth. And I have to preserve my strength for six months from now.

“Come back in 6 months”

On the list of things you want to hear when you’re at your doctor’s office for a second-pass mammogram, this rates somewhere in the mid-range.

Let me back up a step or two.

I’ve been going for mammograms annually since I turned 30, with the exception of the years when I was pregnant or producing milk for whichever kiddo had just been born. There’s a family history – my mom’s had breast cancer once and her sister had it twice (once when she was relatively young, too). Ever since my mom was diagnosed, I kind of had the feeling that I was probably wearing invisible pasties shaped like bullseyes.

Fast forward to now, recently having turned 41, and it’s time for this year’s pre-physical mammogram. So, like a dutiful person, off I went to get my digital snaps taken from my doctor’s practice. I love the digital mammography machines; no more of the “wait, lemme swap film trays” nonsense. The thing is, they didn’t read the pictures while I was there, due to the fact that my appointment was right smack during the radiologist’s lunchtime.

So, when I got a message on my cell phone a few days later saying that they needed me to call the radiology department, my blood started to run cold. I called the radiology folks back, and the friendly, helpful gentleman explained that they needed more pictures of my left breast. There was some “density”.¬†Um, okay…

I made another appointment, the first I could get, and off I went yesterday morning to get new Рhopefully completely boob-absolving Рsnaps taken. As I checked in, the receptionist told me that I had two appointments, one for a mammogram and one for an ultrasound. Turns out that they made the second appointment just in case. Oh. Okay. Just go with it.

I brought my book – “A Dance With Dragons” is long enough that I could wait for all of this year’s appointments for me and the entire family and still need more time to finish it – and followed all of the careful instructions about what to wear and where to sit. My wait wasn’t too long, anyway, and then off I went to get “square breasts”, as my mom tends to refer to it. [For those who haven’t had a mammogram, they put your breast on a metallic plate and then use another plate – a clear one – to smush it down so they can have a fixed picture without your breast wiggling, wobbling or any other kind of meandering. It’s not entirely comfortable. That is to say, at times it’s bearable and other times, you’re holding your breath not so much because they told you to but because otherwise you might scream.]

After the new snaps were taken, I was sent back to the inner waiting room…and then not very long after, I was just brought right over to the ultrasound room. I’d had ultrasounds done of my breasts before, when I had hormone-induced cysts that appeared (and just as quickly disappeared) during my first trimester of my pregnancy with dd. I found it all such a surreal experience. There were a couple of times when the ultrasound tech, who was training a new girl, stopped to take pictures of dark areas. She froze the screen on one such image and then left the room to get the radiologist. I looked at it, squinting at this amorphous void, and wondered aloud, “What are you, and why are you trying to hide?”

I remember the breast surgeon that I met with during that prior cyst incident back in 2006. I specifically recall that she told me it was a good sign that when I pressed on the spots where she felt lumps, it hurt. “Cancer likes to hide, so it won’t necessarily hurt when you press on it,” she said.

The radiologist came in and immediately picked up the paddle and started roughly moving it around, trying to find something that looked like whatever he saw on the mammogram. There wasn’t much explaining for me. It was more, “We know what we’re looking for and we’ll tell you if we find it.”

After a few minutes of this exploratory pushing and prodding with the gel-covered ultrasound paddle, the radiologist called it a day. “It’s probably just normal breast tissue,” he said. But then, he told me to come back in six months, “to see if anything develops”. I toweled myself off, pulled on my clothes, and dutifully made my appointment for early August. What else is there to do?

So, it’s likely this is nothing. Or, even if it’s something, it may be a benign something. But there’s always a possibility that it’s not a benign something, and that it’s not nothing. There’s a chance that it is something…but I won’t know until at least August. Maybe that’s better, and maybe it’s not, but the only thing more awful than him telling me to come back in six months would’ve been him telling me to go for a biopsy. I guess that’s my cold comfort.

I’ll come back in six months. I don’t know what he’ll find, but I’ll come back. And, in the meantime, I’ll just hope for the best and try not to think about that next appointment.

What other choice do I have?