Perspective by Sharon O’Donnell
While I was ‘tracked out’ of school from my job as a Teaching Assistant at a year-round elementary school, I decided to take care of a few doctors’ appointments. There was a knot on my lower arm that I’d had for years, and although it was harmless, I wanted to get it cut out since it sometimes bruised easily. So I’d gone for a consultation and set up the appointment for this past week. I’d been looking forward to finally getting rid of this ‘thing’ on my arm; once when I mentioned this to my niece, she replied, “Oh, so that’s what that thing is.” When someone says to you, “oh that’s what that thing is”, then it’s time to get the thing taken off. My dermatologist recommended that I go to a plastic surgeon nearby who had taken similar work for his patients in the past.
The week before I went in to have the knot taken out, I went in for my regularly scheduled mammogram breast screening. I opted to have the new 3D screening since it provided better views for the doctor to read, which resulted in fewer callbacks for re-checks of mammograms. In the past, I’d been called back twice to be re-checked, and I didn’t want to go through the stress of waiting for a second mammogram. The 3D version was $50 more, but I’d gladly pay that for a more definitive exam that would lessen my chances of getting called back in because something ‘looked’ suspicious on the exam but wasn’t clear. While I was having the 3D exam, the X-ray technician made awkward conversation with me in talking about the weather and sports teams. The kind of talk that I’m sure was an unwanted trademark of her job. Then she mentioned that when it was time for her mammogram, that she would also want to have a 3D exam like I was doing. I told her that I was glad it reduced the chances of coming back in, and her response was, “And if they do call a person back in after a 3D exam, then it will probably be much more serious of a concern.” I didn’t reply to her comment because at that time my left boob was being smashed in between two plastic plates. But I did remember it.
So when I got a call two days later that I needed to come back in for further screening, I thought immediately of the technician’s comment. I got a sick feeling. Especially when they couldn’t get me another appointment until Tuesday afternoon and it was only Thursday. I’d have to wait over the weekend, which is the pits because the thought of it is always hanging over your head. I couldn’t believe I’d have to wait that long when I’d been a patient at the radiology center for over a decade and needed to be rechecked. I tried, in vain, to get an earlier appointment, even telling them of the comment the technician had made to me and how it was unsettling to me. When my gyn office called to follow up after receiving the mammogram report, I told the nurse about my concern regarding the comment from the technician, and the nurse said, “Oh, she shouldn’t have said that.” Then she added, “And really I don’t know that that is true.” Later that afternoon, my doctor called me to reassure me. She told me that they had already had to send several other women who had had 3D mammograms back for rechecks and they had all been okay. That did indeed make me feel better. Still, I did as the radiology center said and called in Friday morning several times to see if they had a cancellation. Same thing on Monday morning. No such luck. I stayed busy all through those days and kept in mind what my doctor had said.
On Tuesday I first had to go on in the morning to have the knot removed from my arm. That went smoothly — The knot was removed remarkably through a small slit in my arm, and then I had some stitches that I’d get taken out later. My mind was, of course, still on my afternoon appointment at the radiology clinic.
When I got to the clinic, I dressed in the familiar gown with the tie-strings and waited in the room with other women in the same gowns, all with our plastic drawstring bags filled with our clothes at our feet. We waited for our name to be called. When mine was called, I followed the technician (not the same one who had said the comment to me) back into the office. After the obligatory, “How are you today?” from her, I repeated the comment from the other technician and told her I wish I could have gotten in earlier for a recheck and was disappointed in the clinic that I hadn’t. She said she’d pass my concerns on to management. Then there were more photos, more squeezing and squishing of the boobs. You know the routine. Afterwards, she had me return to the waiting area and told me that the doctor would look at the images and if there were concerns, I’d have an ultrasound. About ten minutes later, she returned and simply said — there in front of the other women — “Mrs. O’Donnell, you need to go down the hall and see our ultrasound specialist.”
Oh, crap, I thought. That’s not good. And there was no segue or transition to let me know this — no telling me this in a room but instead telling me where everyone else was, where they could see my reaction. And because of that, I took the news without question, not wanting to alarm anyone else about their own situations. I walked back to the ultrasound room. While I was having the ultrasound, I remembered the happy times when I’d had ultrasounds when I was pregnant with my 3 sons — how it’d felt to see the strange outlines of their little bodies when they were inside me, how miraculous it was to see them move and later, to hear their heartbeats. It was odd to think of the joy I’d felt in such a similar situation compared to what I was feeling now. I tried to read the reaction of the technician’s face when she was looking at the ultrasound, but I couldn’t. Then she stood up quickly and said something about ‘dear’ followed by “I’m going to go talk to the doctor about this and I’ll be right back.” I nodded, and she was out the door.
The room was painfully quiet. She’d said something that ended with ‘dear’. Had she said ‘oh, dear’ or was it ‘okay dear’?? They always called women getting mammograms ‘sweetie’ and ‘dear’ so I was hoping she’d said, “Okay, dear, I’m going to get the doctor.” Surely, she would not have said ‘oh dear’ as if she were alarmed. These are the kinds of things that run through your head while waiting for such news.
I’d thought she’d return within a minute or two, but it was longer. After almost ten minutes went by, I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “this is taking a long time. If it is bad news, I have to get ready for it.” And then in my mind, I began to plan. I definitely still wanted to take my youngest son to New York City the following week, just as we’d planned. Surely, whatever treatment I’d need could wait a week. Then I thought about how it would be to tell my sons the bad news, and I knew I would have to be as positive about it as I could be so they wouldn’t worry and let it affect them. Wny not me? I thought to myself. And my stream of thoughts went like this: Women get this diagnosis every day, unfortunately. Why, logically, would I NOT be affected by breast cancer at some point in my life? Let’s start chemo right away, let’s have the lumpectomy or whatever right away — just let me be there for my boys for a long time. I can’t be devastated by any bad news – I have to take it in stride and remember all those who have had to go through this themselves. Then the “Why Not Me?” the first hit of the country group the Judds started running through my mind. Just the chorus,not the verses — just repeating the question, “Why Not Me?” I used to work at a country radio station when the song first came out, and the lyrics and melody came to me immediately after the thought occurred to me. I took another deep breathe and contemplated how I’d break the news to my husband after I left here and went by his office. Would I post a note on Facebook and ask for prayers or would I keep it private for a while? I didn’t know what would be the best thing to do.
And then the door opened and in came the ultrasound technician . . . followed by the doctor. That couldn’t be good, I knew. Ask good questions, I remember thinking. I need to stay calm. “I wanted to take a look myself,” the doctor said, as she sat on the stool and looked at the monitor. “But everything looks good.”
Did she really just say that, I asked myself. Everything looks good? It sounded like I was hearing under water, the words distorted. The words were not what I was expecting, not the words I’d built myself up to be prepared for. So I repeated them back to her: “Everything looks good?”
“Yes,” she replied. “You see that black area here on the screen.” I turned my head to look at the monitor and nodded, but I actually didn’t see anything. I was too relieved to comprehend the what showed on the monitor. It could have been a photo of Humpty-Dumpty up there and I wouldn’t have noticed. She continued to explain: “That’s a cyst. That’s new from your screening last year, more than just dense breast tissue.” I nodded again, and I think I made an “Um-huh” noise, but I’m not sure.
“It has all 3 things that a cyst is supposed to have, not 1 of 3 or 2 of 3, but all 3, so I’m not concerned at all.”
“So it doesn’t have to be removed?” I managed to ask.
“Not unless it causes you pain and you want it out.”
I’d never felt any pain there, and it was not a concern of mine right then. So I nodded yet again.
The doctor smiled and told me to just come back in for my regular exam the following year.
And that was it. Time to take off the gown, put back on the clothes from my plastic bag.
As I went back out into the lobby, my heart was light, my steps were light. When I went outside, the sun was shining. Or maybe it was cloudy. I honestly don’t remember. Because to me, the sun was shining brightly.