The next mammogram had been looming for quite some time. That day was September 25, 2012 and ironically, it was one year to the day that I had the mammogram that changed my world and started my breast cancer journey on September 25, 2011. Even though this mammogram was at a different hospital 60 miles away from home, the flashbacks were hard and heavy.
Mentally, I had prepared myself if told I had cancer again, I would be ready to go in as quickly as possible for surgery and then the process would start over again. It was necessary to prepare myself. I had learned too much to be Pollyanna.
After I stripped to the waist and put on my front-closing gown, I went to sit with the other women in the waiting room decorated with a slightly outdated pink flower border but very comfortable chairs. There were 8 of us. The first thing I noticed was that two of us had “chemo haircuts” and the rest had normal hair. Remembering the statistics that 1 out of 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, I was thinking that in this room 2 out of 8 women had breast cancer. You could see the looks of uneasiness on the other women’s faces as they looked at me and the other woman with our “chemo cuts” hoping their fate was not the same as ours.
The events of the previous year played over in my mind—bringing my mammogram images and test results from my small Ohio hospital to the University of Michigan Cancer Center and my knees buckling as I entered through the doors. Seeing the Breast Surgeon for the first time, waiting for the Tumor Board to tell me my course of treatment, then receiving that dreaded official diagnosis of Stage 3 Triple Positive Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Surgery day for mastectomy the day before Thanksgiving and stoically saying goodbye to my left breast. Onto meeting with my Oncologist, then beginning 5 long months of Chemotherapy two days after Christmas. Then real suffering with grueling Chemotherapy treatments, steroids, and meds, meds, meds. All these memories bombarded my brain, and I had no control over the slideshow.
The review continued as I remembered meeting with the Radiology Oncologist for the first time and being in tears followed by 7 weeks of Radiation in the middle of a 100 degree summer. My mind flashed to getting up on that cold table under that huge, intimidating radiation machine day after day. There is Lymphedema in my left arm, heart damage from Herceptin, going to the cardiologist, and scans upon scans upon scans. Then the positive memories began as I started remembering each and every act of love and kindness by family and friends – food, flowers, drives to treatment, gifts and cards, cards and more cards.
Watching the other women go back for the dreaded squeezes, I pondered how demeaning all of this seemed. And I chuckled to myself as I thought that some designer should come up with something better than these awful well-worn teal gowns we were all wearing and trying to hold shut to keep from exposing ourselves feeling already so vulnerable.
I watched as other women were called back – the young Asian mom, the two elderly women, one on a cane, one with perfectly coiffed red-tinted hair, the Muslim woman with her lovely head scarf, and then the other “chemo haircut” lady. In the midst of these observations, one woman ran out of the mammography area and yelled to her waiting daughter, “Get me the hell out of here!” and flew to the reception area. The young daughter, probably in her 20s, said to us, “I am sorry, my mom gets so afraid.” We all nodded our heads and understood.
Suddenly, it was my turn as I heard my name announced. Cathy, my mammogram technician, was extremely kind. First, she made me laugh, then asked me all the usual medical history questions. When she led me to the mammogram machine, I felt so anxious, I put my arm into the machine instead of my breast!
Even more flashbacks started coming at this point firing in my brain like a semi-automatic weapon. I remembered the look of horror on the face of my mammogram technician one year ago, hearing “you need an immediate ultrasound” and “the doctor needs to speak with you right away”. I remembered lying on the first cold table of so many having the breast biopsy and waiting by the telephone for results. It was difficult to separate the year-apart events in my mind.
But then, I was whisked back into the present moment as Cathy said, “Go back to the waiting room, and we will call you for more photos or results in about 10 minutes.” Once you have had breast cancer, most hospitals give you immediate results rather than make you wait 2 weeks. Those 10 minutes are a blur to me. Suddenly, peace descended and my crazy thoughts ended. I then did what any nervous woman does–go to the bathroom!!
As I was exiting the bathroom, I heard my name being called again. Another woman, dressed in white, greeted me. I don’t remember her name. She had a letter in her hand and before we walked got back to a room, she blurted out in a professional voice, “The doctors see nothing unusual or alarming in your mammogram. Here is your letter stating those facts.” I felt shock and disbelief for a moment as I let her words sink in. Tears started falling down my cheeks, and I asked her if I could hug her. Her rather stilted demeanor immediately became warm, friendly and congratulatory. I remember babbling something to her like “I have had so much bad news, God chose you to deliver this good news to me” like she was the Messiah.
I bolted through the door into the waiting room and hesitated a moment. I simply could not keep the good news to myself as I saw those women sitting there. Out of my mouth came this announcement: “I just got the all clear on my mammogram after one year of breast cancer treatment!!” The women started to applaud. In my fog I heard, “You deserve it” “Good for you” and “I am so happy for you!”
As I went back to the dressing room to put on my clothing, I felt numbness and joy simultaneously. Putting on my bra filled with one prosthesis, I looked down at my remaining breast and thought, “good girl, you get to stay”.
After I called and texted family members and some friends, I began making the rounds at the hospital to share my good news as I waited for my afternoon appointment with my Oncologist! I told the receptionist who knew me from my frequent hospital visits, my chemo nurses who were thrilled to see me, unknown doctors in the elevator, cafeteria workers, janitors and medical students. It was clear they felt my joy by their enthusiastic responses!
I then made my way to the Hospital Chapel. A Catholic Mass was being celebrated. As I sat down, the tears began to flow once more. Gratitude was pouring out of my heart as I thanked God for the events of the day. I thanked Him for giving me the courage I needed during the past year, for leading me to my amazing medical team, and for the wisdom to start a Blog. And most especially, I thanked Him for my family and friends who loved me and supported me through it all.
Thanks be to God for all of you — friends, family and blog readers! I could not have gotten through it this year without you!