Wednesday, November 30, 2005

To Save My Life

The drive to downtown Seattle was quiet. My husband is my rock and he knows after all of these years that attempts to cheer me up fall flat. Darn it! I was so cold; I kept shivering. Dave turned up the defrost. It was supposed to snow in the night so I worried about driving, too. But it was wet, dark and drizzly and the normal 30 minute drive to Virginia Mason Medical Center was taking over an hour even though the teeny bit of snow had melted.

"I can't take this! My nerves---can you pull off the freeway into that Starbuck's? I have to go. Why did I drink that coffee?" I pleaded.

"Can you wait another 20 minutes? We are moving---a little." His voice was full of understanding rather than exasperation. The traffic report said the express lanes had an accident at Mercer that was being cleared. "Even with that, I think the express lanes would be faster," he offered.

"I can't get stuck in traffic! I am so uncomfortable; I hate this." He suggested we pull off at the University because his office is near an entrance to the express lanes. I could use the bathroom and the few minutes would open up I-5, hopefully. The plan worked and we zoomed the rest of the way to the medical center. My physical discomfort had been relieved but I was still shivering and terrified.

The Breast Imaging Center is on the fifth floor. At this hour of the morning, the people in the elevator seemed to be employees. All of them had covered latte cups in hand. Now I understand why they wait until they reach their destination to imbibe. The emotions and lives of so many are in these people's hands. "Can they see my fear? I wish I was just going to work. I hate this," I thought.

I had been here the week before and the year before and the year before that. My mammograms are never simple. They always call me back but usually, it is for cysts and they do an ultrasound and I'm out of there. But this time it was something new--breast calcifications. Damn it! My Mom's breast cancer was diagnosed when they called her back for calcifications. My plan was to avoid being called back so I signed up for a digital mammogram in hopes they could see things better with one try. The thing is, with digital, they see more and they wanted to digitally magnify these tiny white specs they saw.

The coolish receptionist directed me back to the dressing room. The hospital gowns were on a shelf---XXL and regular. Even the regular size wraps around me twice so I can't tie them; I have to hold it on myself. "It's so cold in here. It has been so cold in Seattle the last couple of days," I shivered. I stayed in the dressing booth to wait rather than the dressing room waiting area. I didn't feel like looking at anybody. Besides, I was saying the Lord's Prayer.

The wonderful mammogram technician escorted me into the digital room. She smelled like coffee so she must have waited, too. Geez! I hate this process. There is a shelf on which to place your breast and I don't have anything to put on a shelf. I was still shaking and I told her I was terrified.

"Oh, don't be terrified, dear. Look...," as she showed me a tiny white spot in the digital pictures of me. "Even in the worst case scenario, if this is a cancer, we have caught it so early that survival would be 100%. This is a blessing, actually. But 80% of the time these things are nothing even if they need to do a biopsy. Probably, the radiologist will simply want to take a look again in six months." My poor little right half was painfully squished for three more pictures.

The warm and smiling woman took me into another room to wait for an indeterminate amount of time while the radiologist studied the new pictures. I was so cold and still shaking; I wrapped my arms tightly around myself...to hold the gown. My thoughts went to prayer, "Please, God, no matter what, just give me the strength to handle anything." Having a little cancer caught early would probably not change my life much, but NO, dammit, I don't want even a little cancer. "Oh man! I hate this!" But it is the price we pay. One in eight women have to hear this news--had to sit in this same chair waiting for their verdict. The Lord's Prayer again and I'm having a little trouble focusing. I now understand why the Catholics use rosaries.

The poster on the wall had two beautiful smiling women embraced and presumably they were mother and daughter. It said "Life--more women are living full lives because mammograms save lives through early detection."

"Yea, right," I thought, "if I don't die of a heart attack first right here in this chair. I'm so cold." I don't ever want to come back here again--not even in six months. I can't take it. A kind woman had her arms around an older lady in a gown out in the hall.

"So, you have had a biopsy before and it was nothing?" The woman pulled her gown down a little as they walked and showed the scar. Even I could see it. Dammit, I don't even want a scar. I hate this. I did not want to be there. I wanted to go home and have a warm cup of coffee and look out the window. I wanted to hug my daughter like in the poster. My Mom survived all of this crap; so did my best friend in Pennsylvania. So do millions of women. It is a giant sisterhood but I do not want to be a part of it but I will, if I have to. "God, give me Peace." I was so uncomfortable. It was taking so long. I looked at my watch and it was only 9:30. We had arrived in the underground parking at 9. I thought about Dave. This is tough on men, too, because they lose their young brides.

My wonderful technician finally returned with a pink card in hand. My heart was pounding. "Benign! Benign!", she sang as she waved around the card. "This digital stuff is great. The magnification showed characteristics--a tulip or teacup effect--that are definitive of benign calcifications probably from cysts that used to be there." At that moment, the fire alarm went off and a voice came on the intercom that people should prepare to evacuate. I was not about to leave in that stupid gown.

My wonderful technician followed me into the dressing room. "And you don't even need to come back except, of course, for your routine mammogram next year!"

"Merry Christmas! What a great gift!" she proclaimed. I think about all of the women and maybe some today who won't get to hear those words.

"Merry Christmas to you, too. Merry Christmas!"

Out in the lobby, I give a thumbs up to my husband. He cracks a small smile. "Let's get out of here. The stupid elevators aren't working so we need to take the stairs," he remarked with exasperation as he grabbed my hand. The alarm and voice kept going and we rush down eight flights. I tried to explain the teacup effect. "They probably set someone on fire again during surgery!"

Yep, at that moment, it was ok to cheer me up....

...and I was laughing!