It's not surprising that I check myself often for lumps. Lumps in and around my neck - where 3 years ago, my cancer stood out like twin bolts and morphed me into some sort of female Frankenstein; lumps under my arms - where my father's cancer was discovered; lumps on my ankles and feet - where my cancer first made itself known by causing a secondary condition. Lumps in my groin, in my side, in my chest. It's not surprising that on any given day I'll reach up - nearly mindlessly - during a conversation, meal, while driving - and poke and prod around ... hyper-vigilant for any swelling, any inkling of swelling, the mere thought of swelling. It's become almost a ritual - this constant checking. I've memorized the bumpy feel of the hardened tissue beneath my biopsy scar. I know the exact size and position of my normal lymph nodes - so much so that when my lymph nodes do swell or feel the slightest bit enlarged my tongue darts frantically around my mouth looking for anything - a sore, a loose tooth, a cut gum - anything that could explain the benign nature of an enlarged lymph node. I know every ridge of my throat and the detailed topography under my arms and around my groin. I know how to distinguish between fatty tissue and thickened skin and anything more sinister. To say I know my body is an understatement. It would have to be, wouldn't it? Hourly my hands flit about - touching, feeling, resting, moving on ... checking, registering, making sure.
It is always a relief when I come away clean. When my hands drift back down to my lap, my fork and knife, the steering wheel - I know, at least for the moment, that I'm okay. Still here. Still okay. Still cancer-free.
It's not surprising I often check for lumps. It was surprising when I found one. Make that two. Both in my right breast.
Cue mammogram. My first.
I know. Seems crazy that I haven't had one yet. Seems almost like it should be a job requirement of mine since I spend a good deal of my year flitting about the country telling everyone else in the whole ding-dong world to get one. But, since I was diagnosed with my own lymphatic cancer at 36 and since I get regular PET scans to monitor that cancer (or rather absence thereof) and since PET scans show active cancer in your body (well, not YOUR body ... I'm sure your body is fine, I just mean anyone), a diagnostic mammogram wasn't necessary. Until now.
I've had many, many medical tests in my life. Pap smears, ultrasounds, x-rays, needle biopsies, surgical biopsies, even a lung washing (always knew I had a filthy mouth … never knew I had such dirty lungs!). EKGs, EEGs, MUGAs and echocardiograms. Pulmonary functions tests, CT scans, MRIs, endoscopies, IVPs and a lovely little test called a cystogram involving a tube, a camera and a very full bladder. It would be difficult for you to name a diagnostic test I HAVEN'T had at one time or another. All of them have their little rituals. None of them are terribly comfortable or terribly uncomfortable. They just sort of are what they are. And all of them, in a way, make a lot of sense. To test your lungs, for example, you breathe into a tube. That makes sense, I can understand how someone designed that test. Good going. And to test the electromagnetic activity of your heart, electrodes are hooked up to your skin that can monitor your hearts' electric signals. Yep. Got it. Totally makes good sense. Nice thinking there Mr. EKG. But how in the hell someone thought it was a good idea to smash the ever-lovin life out of two perfectly good tits is beyond me. Really? THIS is the best we can do here? And I KNOW why. I get the whole concept. But man oh man. Those were some flat knockers. And AND the whole routine is just ridiculous. Move here, hold this, turn that way, no not that way, too much, lift that up, hang on let me move it, on your toes, now put your chin here, no not there, keep holding that handle, your chin's in the way again, shoulder back, not too far, right there...
NOW HOLD THAT POSITION.
And in that moment, I stood there thinking… I should try out for Cirque du Soleil. I'm a friggin' contortionist! A contortionist with really flat funbags. They pay big money for that in Vegas, babies.
On that day, my mammogram dance is pretty straightforward. Smash em this way, snap a picture. Smash that way, snap a picture. Smash em this way again…WATCH THAT CHIN!...snap a pic. Once I'm released from the jaws of the machine and my partner the technician and I part. I'm given instructions to wait and I'm led into a tiny room. She leaves to show the films to the radiologist so he or she can check them to make sure they got what they needed. My history with tests tells me there are two reasons the tech will poke her head into my tiny room and ask me for another dance.
1) She's no good at her job and the films are lousy.
2) There is something there and they need more pictures of it.
I love courtroom dramas. I grew up watching them. True life or fictional, I'm all in. I just get caught up in the story of it all. I especially love the moment when a jury leaves to deliberate and the tension builds - both for the prosecution and especially the defense. I love watching the clips of the innocent-until-proven-guilty party sweat. I love scenes where the team of lawyers plays and replays their strategy ... Did we do enough? Did we make a compelling case? Was that witness to be believed? How strong is the evidence? I love hearing theories about the length of deliberation ... some say when a jury takes a long time, the verdict will be Not Guilty. Some say the opposite. Some say there is no way of telling. One thing is sure. The longer it takes, the more the tension builds.
Did he/Didn't he?
Will they/Won't they?
I sit in that tiny room and I go through all the arguments. But I can come up with no good reason why this is taking so long. The longer it takes, the more the tension builds:
Is it/Isn't it?
Do I/Don't I?
There is a small one-hanger closet in this room. There is a 2 foot wide bench. There are 2 doors - one from the lobby into the tiny room and one from the tiny room into the exam room. If both doors are open at the same time, their locks brush each other. Above the bench is a mirror. On the bench is a box of wipes. There is a single canned light in this room. It casts a feeble light and makes everything shadowy and dim. On the opposite wall is a framed print ... it's pink ...it has a butterfly on it...it has words in a curly font that say something about empowerment, which is the last thing I feel.
Is it/Isn't it?
Do I/Don't I?
There's not a lot to do in this room. Sitting on the bench, I can literally touch the opposite wall. Standing in the middle of the room I can touch both doors. The framed print is the only reading material in that room. I read it twice. I hate it both times. The canned light has cobwebs. Not a lot. A few. There is a hamper in the bottom of the closet. I assume it is for the half-gown I'm wearing. It has a label that says "soiled laundry" which makes me wonder just what happens in these gowns?
I can touch the top of the cabinet if I stand on my toes. It's dusty. The framed mirror hangs by a wire on a nail. The mirror is heavy enough that if nudged by the corner, it will stay crooked. I pass some time by unfolding and refolding my clothes since I'm not allowed to dress. I remain clothed in the sideless sleeveless drape I was given. I feel disposable. I'm covered, but just barely. It's not cold but I have goosebumps. Every time I fold my arms under my drape my fingertips brush the lump that brought me here.
I sit again.
And that's when it hits me -
I will be in this room for the rest of my life.
I will be waiting to hear
Waiting to know
Planning, preparing, pleading, praying.
There are two doors to this room, but no way out.