I’ve been at the cancer center for nearly three hours. It’s a beautiful new facility. The waiting rooms are bright and airy and as inviting as they can be. I’m sipping the free coffee while I wait.
I hate it here. I hate everything about this place. I hate the tired eyes, the fear, the tears, the worn-out smiles. More than anything, I hate seeing the kids.
I rode in on the elevator from the parking garage with a little girl and her mom. The girl was no more than Katie’s age. She wore a pink bandana over her bald head. I’d gotten into their elevator by mistake – it was headed in the wrong direction. I gave an exaggerated shrug and joked with her that I had just wanted to ride with her for a while. She gave me a beautiful, shy smile. There but for the grace of God.
I’ve been texting with friends while I wait, trying not to think. I let myself get enmeshed in their drama. It’s a lot easier to think about right now than my own.
Once a year I come here, to the High Risk Monitoring Program. Once a year, I’m prodded and poked and checked. Once a year, I get a pass. Until next time.
The nurse finally calls my name. Well, half of my name at least. They’re big on confidentiality around these parts. She thanks me for waiting ‘so patiently’. I laugh and tell her not to make assumptions. She laughs too. She makes small talk as we wind our way down the long hallway to the examination room. I’m not listening.
She leaves me to change into a gown for the third time today.
“Front or back?” I ask. I used to try to figure it out. Now I just ask.
“Opens in the back,” she says as she pulls the privacy curtain.
I change, yet again. And wait.
I wonder why it is that in a breast cancer clinic, the gowns would open in the back. Does that make sense to anyone? I look around but find nothing of interest so I play with my iPhone. I chuckle and amuse myself by posting a status update on Diary’s Facebook page.
Proof positive that gender inequality is still alive and well — the mammogram. I promise you that if men had to smush their unmentionables seven ways to Sunday into a machine once a year to check for cancer, there’d be a laser version of that thing by now.
The doctor comes in to find me surreptitiously hitting “Share.”
We chat a bit.
She says, “So I hope you’ve had a good year.”
Not so much, doc. I don’t answer.
She swivels on her chair and looks right at me.
“HAVE you had a good year?”
Damn, what’s up with the direct question?
“No, not really.”
I try to laugh, but instead emit some weird, sharp noise.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says. “Is there anything we can do?”
I wonder what on earth that might be, but thank her anyway.
We talk a bit more and then she asks me a more relevant question.
“Jess, have you ever considered adding in a yearly MRI to your monitoring program?”
My mom survived breast cancer. Her mother did not. In addition to my yearly breast exams at the OB-GYN, I come here to the cancer center once a year for a mammogram and exam. I see the same doctor, overseen by the same panel of experts, every year.
“Some people would rather not submit to the MRI,” she says. “It’s forty-five minutes face-down in a tube. But it gives us very different information than the mammogram. It uses contrast to really see the breast tissue and alert us to any changes or abnormalities.”
She goes on to tell me that the MRIs ultrasensitivity often leads to false positives. I tell her I’ve experienced the same with mammograms. This ain’t my first rodeo.
“So what do you think?” she asks. “Given your family history, it shouldn’t be a problem with insurance.”
I say the following.
“The reality is this. I have two little girls.”
My voice cracks. I’m not going to get through this without crying. Screw it. I don’t care.
“One of them has autism.”
I take a deep, jagged breath.
” Truthfully, I can’t imagine how their lives would work right now without me.”
She hands me a tissue.
“I come here once a year and each time I figure this is going to be the one. I hope that I’m wrong, of course, but given my history, it’s not exactly far-fetched.”
She doesn’t say a word.
“So that being said, if it does happen, I need to know that I’m doing everything I can to ensure that we catch it as early as we possibly can. So whatever there is that I can do toward that end, I will do.”
She hands me a wad of tissues. I use them to wipe my now soaking-wet face. I take pride in the fact that I remembered not to wear mascara. It’s the little things.
With no further questions, she orders a standing MRI that will alternate with the mammogram. One more safety net. I will now be seen every six months. Her voice cracks as she tells me the plan. I guess she gets it.
I don’t have time for this stuff. Truthfully, I don’t even have the emotional energy to spare for it. But it’s non-negotiable.
My girls need me.
I call Luau from the car.
I’m OK. I got the pass for six more months.
I hate this.