This is an unusually personal post for me, and it is likely in danger of veering into melodramatic territory. But if you stick with me, I have some fairly solid takeaways at the end. I think, anyway.
A little history–both of my parents died of blood cancers about a year apart when they were sixty-three. I was thirty-nine and forty respectively at the time, and living through cancer with them made a serious impact on me. I joke about it sometimes, but deep down, I honestly began to worry that I have an early expiration date that grew a little closer with each passing year.
That’s not a great excuse, but at least it’s a slightly reasonable explanation for why I hadn’t had a mammogram in a long time. I just didn’t want to know. Call me an ostrich.
After several missteps with unsatisfactory doctors over the past few years, this summer, I decided to try again with a new primary care doc, a really fabulous physician who listens to me and who insisted that I had to have some basic tests recommended for a mid-fifties woman. I took a deep breath and did them all.
To my enormous relief, the first few tests came back fine. I’m still dealing with a few ongoing issues identified by the doctor, but we’ve gotten those under control.
The last test I had done was my mammogram, in mid-August. It seemed to go well; the tech did extra pictures on the left side and noted that I shouldn’t be alarmed if I was called back for a follow-up. So when I was indeed called and told that they had ‘found something’, I tried not to be upset. I was on the verge of leaving for nearly three weeks away from home for a family visit and then the NINC conference, so I told them I couldn’t go back for the follow-up until October 5th.
For three days, I didn’t tell anyone in my family about this. Then I realized that keeping it to myself was causing me more stress, so I let everyone know, telling them I wasn’t worried and didn’t want to talk about it. I mentioned it to a few close friends at NINC so that they’d understand if I was a little quiet here and there. After that, I mostly put it away. Or I tried to, at least.
But once I was back home last week, unpacked and settled, the anxiety over this appointment ROARED back to life. Despite meditation, prayer, and breathing exercises, by Wednesday I was an absolute mess. All I could think of was what if it’s bad news?
A few notes of justification: in addition to the looming memory of my parents’ cancer battles and deaths, I also had no idea what to expect from this appointment. They’d said it would be a high-level mammogram and ultrasound, and that I should expect to be there for at least two hours so that the radiologist could read the pictures. The sense of the unknown was rather terrifying.
On Thursday, I stuck to my regular schedule as much as possible. I spent the morning with my youngest granddaughter (talk about the perfect distraction!!) and then I had a podcast scheduled with my business partner and dear friend Mel Jolly and the cool dudes from Draft2Digital (along with some other lovely guests!). I was live with them right up until the moment I had to leave for the appointment. Thankfully, both Kevin and his wife Kara knew what was happening, so he didn’t give me TOO hard a time about ducking out early.
At the imaging center, I watched closely every nurse and tech with whom I interacted. Did they know something? Was this anticipated to be a problem? Were they prepared to give me life-threatening news? The receptionist called what I was having a diagnostic mammogram. Diagnostic? That meant they already assumed something was there that had to be diagnosed. My anxiety soared.
I sat in the back waiting room with a few other women in our lovely ‘open in the front!’ hospital tops, still not sure what to expect. After about twenty minutes, one of the techs asked if she could speak to me privately. We went into a mammogram room, and she explained that I was going to have an ultrasound first, and then if necessary, the higher-level mammogram. I told her how anxious I felt, and she offered kindness and water–both of which I accepted. Before she could get my water, however, the ultrasound tech called me in for my turn.
I lay on the table, open and vulnerable as only a woman in this position can be. The tech was friendly and comforting, and she made small talk for the first few minutes. Then she stopped talking, began measuring, and noted that she had to move the wand under my arm as well.
Inside, I digested all of these hints and spit them back out as impending doom. When she finally told me that I could sit up while she took the films to the radiologist to be read, promising to be back in five to ten minutes, she also asked if I’d had any recent immunizations. I told her no, not since last year when I had my flu shot and COVID vax. She nodded and left.
I sat on the table, wiping cold gel from my body, positive that the last question indicated that they were looking for any possible outside cause for something evil lurking in my body. I grabbed my phone and texted my daughter in the waiting room, my sister, and two of my friends, telling them I was sure it was going to be bad news.
I shook, I prayed, and I demanded health and wholeness of the universe. I pleaded with Jesus, requested intercessory prayer of my relatives who have already passed . . . and I repeated on rotation the simple prayer that has never failed me.
Thy will be done. Please, help.
After what seemed like an hour, the tech knocked and came back in.
“Nothing to be concerned about!” she announced brightly as if my entire life hadn’t been held in her hands. “Sometimes, you can have cysts . . .”
Whatever she said next was lost because I had covered my face and burst into tears.
She was sweet, hugging me and telling me it was going to be okay. She passed me tissues as I sobbed out my worries that I wouldn’t live to see my beloved granddaughters grow up, that I wouldn’t see my three younger kids get married and start families. That I still wanted more years with my husband, that we still had so much to do and experience and share.
Before I left to get dressed, she shared a few of her own challenges, and I promised to pray for her and for her family. If that’s the whole reason I was meant to be there, to know that I was called to pray for her loved ones, then it was enough.
I dressed and rushed out to the waiting room where Cate was trying to read as the old lady near her filed her nails viciously, something that none of my daughters can stand to hear. Clearly, Cate had been through her own battles. When she saw me and the thumbs up that I gave her, she hugged me tight and we both shed some tears.
I expect that thousands of women each day go back to follow-up tests after ‘something’ is seen in their screening. I know that many handle it as routine, and I admire them. I also know that too many fail to receive the same ‘nothing to be concerned about’ news that I was so grateful to hear.
So what are my takeaways?
On this Friday morning, I am more cognizant of how happy I am to be alive. I am so thankful for my health and determined to protect it to the best of my ability. Everything today looks brighter, happier, more filled with possibility.
More than I can express adequately, I am so grateful to the people with whom I’d shared my anxiety who were praying for me yesterday, sending me positive vibes, Reiki, advice on how to frame my Universe-demands, and who celebrated my good news with me. My family, my beloved friends, and those who storm heaven on behalf of others most definitely held me up when I might have crumbled. A burden shared is a burden halved, goes the old adage, but in my case, the burden was sprinkled over so many people whom I trusted to have my back. I love you all.
If you decide to get your first mammogram in decades, don’t do it in or just before October. Going back for a potentially troubling follow-up appointment in Breast Cancer Awareness Month means you cannot watch ANYTHING–even your beloved football games–without being reminded of breast cancer. Wait until November, or maybe springtime. While this is mostly tongue-in-cheek, it really was something that I thought about quite a bit this week, each time I saw a pink jersey or a cancer-treatment ad.
Finally, I know that in a few weeks or months, my deep gratitude for life will have faded. That’s simply the way it is with most humans; once the myriad of little troubles creep in once again, we tend to leave behind whatever sense of thankfulness we might have experienced. As it says in the Bible, we are a forgetful people.
That’s one reason that I’m writing this. I want to have an Ebenezer*, a reminder of how blessed I am and that in times of trouble or uncertainty, I am not alone. I have a strong family, a network of friends, and an abiding faith in One who knows more than I do, who has already seen the end of my story.
I’m fifty-six years old. I figure I still have at least fifty years of stories to tell, of life to live, of family to watch unfold. I’m beyond-the-telling-of-it grateful that from where I stand now, with everything I know this moment, I will have those years. Or at least some of them–three of my four grandparents lived until their late 80s or early 90s.
Oh, and also–ladies, get those mammograms. While I was cursing myself for having done so earlier in the week, I am aware that early detection saves lives. I’ll be going back in six months to have my next one.
One of my favorite movie lines supplied the title for this post. In the movie Hook, a grown-up Peter Pan has just survived the ultimate battle with Captain Hook and returned to his wife and children outside Neverland. An elderly Wendy notes that his adventures are over, to which Peter, portrayed with such grace and humor by Robin Williams, replies, “Oh, no. To live . . . to live would be an awfully big adventure.”
I don’t want to forget that truth. I hope you remember it today, too.
*Ebenezer is a Hebrew word that means “stone of help”. It is mentioned three times in the Bible.