It was May, I was on vacation, and I had decisions to make. I had recently turned 54, and since entering my fifties, I’d had back surgery to remove a herniated disk (successfully); reawakened my artistic aspirations and launched myself into producing and showing my artwork; taught myself how to use Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign; designed and built a website for my photography; won art awards; served as an officer on the Employee Council at the local hospital where I worked; served on the Executive Board of the Wickford Art Association; started a long, complex action against an abusive boss; changed jobs by transferring to another department; and ultimately helped get the abusive boss fired. I had also been through “the Change,” as my mother’s generation called it, and was now officially post-menopausal. I had, therefore, also survived three years of hot flashes and night sweats that were turning into a personal thermostat set on high all the time. I had not had a good night’s sleep in two years. I ruefully remembered my mother going through the same things, but she was no longer around to commiserate. I was still fairly slender, but only because the fifteen extra pounds I was carrying had a lot of room to spread out on my 5’10” frame. I was certainly not as fit as I was used to being, but only because I was always hot, sweaty and tired. Why would I want to get more hot, sweaty and tired at a gym? I couldn’t bear even to think about it. Besides, thinking hard made me break out in a soaking sweat. People marvelled at all the things I managed to do and wondered how I had time to do them. “I’m over 50,” I answered, “I don’t sleep anymore.”
But 2008 was different. I was more than tired. I was weary, weary to the bone, weary in my soul. I felt like I needed to slow down, way down, and simplify my life somehow. I believed in volunteerism, but I also had to acknowledge that my current volunteer activities were taking a lot more from me than they were giving me anymore. I needed to get un-involved. I had enough artwork to keep me going through my usual round of juried show entries through the rest of the year, but I felt like the inspirational well was dry. I needed to change direction in my art, but I didn’t quite see where that direction would be. I needed a fallow period to be quiet, to regroup, to recharge my batteries.
I was on vacation for two weeks during the end of May, one of the most beautiful months in southern New England. Trees were flowering in pastel profusion. Lilacs and azaleas and daffodils and hyacinths and tulips were in bloom everywhere. It was warm but not hot. A good time to rest and reflect. With one thing and another, I hadn’t had an annual physical in a few years. So, I went to my doctor and got one. Along with the exam itself went the Pap smear; the annual mammogram; another bone density scan because I was post-menopausal and had a maternal risk for osteoporosis; and lab work to check my blood levels and my cholesterol, because I had a paternal risk for heart disease. I also bit the bullet and finally scheduled a colonoscopy. My cousin Patty had died of colon cancer the year before and I knew I’d better not put it off any longer. I had to wait till the end of July to get the colonoscopy, which was just as well. Because in the meantime, I found out I was osteopenic and that my cholesterol was too high. Suddenly, I had to take medication for something more serious than seasonal allergies. Oh, goody. Thanks, Mom and Dad. Love getting older.
The one thing I wasn’t worried about at all was my annual mammogram. No one in my extended family had had breast cancer. My maternal aunt had had ovarian cancer and survived. My uncle, a lifelong golfer, had had melanoma for years and it did finally kill him, but I had been careful about sun for years now. So, I was sanguine about going to the local mammography clinic, run by my esteemed employer, to get my boobs squished. I said hello to a few colleagues, changed into a pink ‘janie’ and waited my turn. My mammographer was aware that I was a physical therapist and a sister employee, so we kibbitzed about this and that during my exam. She asked to me to wait while she checked the images in case she needed to do any over. Sure enough, after a few minutes, she brought me back in. I was used to this, because my breasts were small but fibrous and it was difficult to get the axillary margins to show clearly. When I entered the exam room, however, she did not take more images, but had something to tell me.
“Listen,” she said, “they’re going to call you in a few days and have you come back in for a more detailed mammogram. There are these tiny calcifications on the films of your right breast that they’ll want a closer look at.”
“Okay,” I said, without any particular concern.
“Most of us have some calcifications in our breasts,” she continued, “so they’re probably nothing, but sometimes they turn out to be ductal carcinoma, which is an early form of breast cancer. It’s not invasive, but it is cancer, so we need to see what’s going on with you to make sure that’s not what you have. Chances are you’re fine. But they’ll be able to tell for sure by taking more pictures.”
“Okay,” I said. “No biggie. I’ll wait to hear from you guys.” That was June 20th. Five days later, I got a call from Radiology asking me to make an appointment for a diagnostic mammogram. On July 8th, I had it. The radiologist came into the exam room after reading my images and, with all the warmth of a cadaver, announced unceremoniously, “You need to get a biopsy.”
“Okay,” I said, thinking, if this is your bedside manner, I’m sure as hell not getting it here.
Meanwhile, my primary care physician was on vacation, so I couldn’t ask him for a referral. He’s allowed to be on vacation. I wasn’t too concerned. After all, I work in health care, so I did not lack for people from whom to get a few suggestions. The same name came up several times, and with the same level of enthusiasm, from the nurses and administrators who are my friends at work. So I got the phone number for this breast surgeon they all mentioned, and called her office to make an appointment. I didn’t know then that this would be the first of many calls and visits, but I was already feeling a bit more tense. After all, a do-over mammogram is one thing, but a biopsy is another. Still, I wasn’t all that worried. If I were going to get cancer, breast cancer was not the one I figured I’d end up with.
Clearly, I’d make a lousy fortune-teller.
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