Monday, July 20, 2009

Not What I Expected

The technician wedging my breast between the two plates of the X-ray machine barely reaches my shoulder. “Why do I get all the tall ones?” she says, laughing. Barbara is matronly and pleasant, the perfect kind of comforting soul to perform “callback” mammograms on anxious women dreading bad news.

After the breast-squishing and the hum of the machine ceases, the two plates open, releasing me. I shrug my arm into the long-sleeved green and white seersucker robe provided by Advanced Radiology and walk over to Barbara’s side of the screen.

The undersized breast that has been such a disappointment to me all my life has ripened a bit with menopause. It looks satisfyingly full on the monitor. It is also flecked with dust. “Not dust,” says Barbara. “Calcifications.”

They look harmless. Hard to believe those flecks might signal cancer.

Barbara tells me that larger calcifications are common as women age. She says that she has some in her breasts, as a matter of fact. “Sometimes,” she adds, “calcifications appear in layers that follow the path of milk ducts. Those usually pose no problem.” The ones on the monitor, on my breast, are small and randomly scattered.

“Well, that should do it,” Barbara says. She escorts me to the coffee room saying she’ll come back shortly with news. “Hopefully, I’ll simply say we need to see you again in six months.”

Two other women garbed in matching seersucker robes barely glance up from their magazines as I take a seat. When I am stymied by the fancy coffee machine, however, both rise to flank me and demonstrate how to place a white plastic “pod” into the well on top. “Don’t forget to put a cup underneath,” says one, an attractive white-haired woman of sixty-five or so.

I survey the boxes of available coffee pods. Hmmm. Hazelnut. Vermont Country Blend. Vanilla. Dark Magic. I settle for the Vermont Country Blend and regret it as soon as my cup starts to fill. Why didn’t I choose “Dark Magic”? What was I thinking? I could use some magic right now.

A nurse in royal blue scrubs appears at the door and says, “Florence? I need to take another picture.” The woman with the white hair puts down her magazine and follows the nurse into the hall.

She looks totally calm. Is her heart pounding like mine?

As I stir two creamers and a sugar packet into my coffee, Barbara returns. “I’ll take you to your dressing room and once you’re ready, Kelly will take you to the doctor.”

No mention of “See you in six months.”

With my right breast still warm from its squeezing and me now very conscious of my right breast and sensing - whether physically or not – pinpricks of what I perceive are calcifications, I pull on my turtleneck and sage green fleece. I slide back the door of the dressing room. Kelly, a cute young blond in that royal blue outfit, is waiting to guide me down the hall.

Dr. Wallace has shoulder length blond hair and bangs. Her name is written in blue script on her white lab coat. Her eyes are kind and moist, as if she were teary. Hers must be a hard job.

“Make yourself comfortable,” she says, gesturing to an overstuffed chair. I sit down. She pulls a rolling chair over from the counter-top desk and sits in front of me. Squarely in front of me. “There are calcifications in your right breast that weren’t there before. Sometimes these mean nothing, but we need to do a biopsy to check them out.”

So reassuring. But I saw those flecks. Random and small. “You’ve seen lots of these films, Dr. Wallace. In your opinion, what do you think?” I say.

She tucks in her lower lip. Her eyes never leave mine. Her skin seems sort of ruddy, as if she’d gotten too much sun over the weekend. “Since you ask, I’ll be honest with you. I think you might have a little cancer.”

I wonder if she threw the “little” in there so it wouldn’t sound so daunting?

I don’t feel weepy. I’m surprised at how well I’m taking this. So I am equally surprised when my question comes out a choked sob. “Why would this happen? I don’t eat meat. I nursed my kids. I have no family history…” I break off.

Dr. Wallace pats my leg. “You need a tissue.” We both look around the office, but don’t see any. “Just a minute. I’ll find some.”

I see her reaching up to a shelf across the hall and then notice a box of Kleenex on the table by my chair. Right next to me. Duh. “I found some,” I call to her.

She returns and takes her seat again. “I know this is hard. You take care of yourself. But you have breasts and ovaries. As women age, sometimes this happens.”

This is not what I expected to hear. None of this. I am an anxious person. I worry about my parents, my kids, the environment, war, animal cruelty and house invasions. But basically, I’ve had faith in my body. I never thought I’d be one of those women in a pink baseball cap or scarf.

Dr. Wallace tells me to call my doctor to get a recommendation for someone to do the biopsy. She asks me to sign a form indicating that she has given me my x-ray films. After I assure her that I’m okay, she leaves me to collect myself. I scribble a few notes. I cry – only a little - and wipe my nose. I puff my lips and blow out a long, rushing, breath. Okay. I’m fine. I can do this.

Kelly is standing in the hall. Her smile is sympathetic, almost apologetic. “Are you okay to drive?”

I nod. But suddenly, I really want to get to the car and cry some more.

Kelly leads me back to the waiting room and I walk through, dry-eyed and smiling so I don’t alarm the women with pounding hearts who are reading Vogue and Connecticut Magazine.