Once you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, getting mammograms become an anxiety-inducing event. It doesn’t matter how many “clear” results you’ve received post-diagnosis. You start to worry days before your scheduled appointment. For me, it’s more than just the fear of experiencing a cancer recurrence.
Approaching every mammogram at my hospital feels like preparing for “Judgment Day.” First, I schedule my mammograms for a time when I think they won’t interfere with me psychologically. Some patients want to postpone this test until after they’ve had their vacation or celebrations. Me? I want to get a “clear” prior to even trying to enjoy myself, otherwise, I spend my whole holiday stressing about it.
At least I have some control over the timing. But once I show up to my appt, I no longer can control anything. It’s the way this procedure is conducted at my hospital that distresses me.
You get to the reception desk and provide them with your name and date of birth. You’re then asked to sit in the waiting room with other women who are also waiting to be examined. First, I need to get undressed from the waist up and wear a hospital gown. I follow the instructions. I sit with the other patients who look just as nervous as I do but are trying very hard to make the situation feel casual. No one initiates a conversation. We all act as if we were at a regular clinic waiting to be called for our yearly check-up. Some of us grab magazines to read while others just stare into space. From time to time, I take a peek to see if anyone else is as young as I am. And almost every time everyone is much older than I. A thought runs through my head: “couldn’t I have enjoyed my youth before having to deal with this shit?”
There are several mammogram technicians who frequently come out to call on different patients. Once I hear my name being called, my heart beat accelerates, as I am aware of what they’ll be looking for and what I don’t want them to find.
I go into the mammogram room with the technician and get asked questions about symptoms and family cancer history. All over again. I’m then asked to remove the gown to start the “pancake” procedure. My breasts get flatten by the compressor plate which allows for accurate imagery. Several pictures are taken. I start to wonder if all this radiation is activating the bad cells, which can happen due to my ATM gene. It is a very uncomfortable test. But to me this isn’t the worst part. The worst part is the wait and how each group of women is kept in a waiting room, then moved to another room, and then moved to another room, depending on what the doctors see. It feels as if we’re waiting for a verdict, except there is no one to defend us. And if we are lucky, we get to go free that same day.
After I am done with the mammogram, I’m asked to go to a room where all the patients anxiously wait to hear their verdict. This is the time when I exceed the number of texts on my phone plan and sit restlessly. Often, a TV is on, broadcasting bad news about the world, making the aggravating atmosphere even worse.
I eventually hear nurses call each patient to inform them about their results. After the interaction between the nurse and the patient, you either see the patient leave or go into yet another room for a different type of scan. This usually means they’ve found “something” suspicious and they need to further investigate. And this is the worst part for me. Seeing how the patient, very slowly and with a look of concern, follows the nurse to the other room. Despite their fears, they proceed anyway. It is devastating to just watch. I also can’t help but think I might be next. After all, although we’ve been through our treatments, we’re never really done. We are not cured.
Finally I hear my name called. I follow the nurse who conveniently stands between the exit door and the sonogram rooms – where patients need to go after something suspicious is found. I get clear results (at least, I have so far). I am handed the paper stating those results and my recommended next appointment date. I take a deep breath and thank the nurse for delivering the good news. I immediately head into the bathroom. I stare at myself in the mirror for some time, still in disbelief of why I am there in the first place. I think about the other patients. I always do. Especially, I think about those who have passed from my family. From my support circle. I cry and I feel both grateful and guilty for getting another “free pass”. I get dressed and go back into the world where I am expected to act as if I am completely done and shouldn’t worry anymore. But I still worry. And despite my fears, I continue to live my life anyway. Until the next verdict.