Reality Mom: The call
“This is Swedish women’s imaging center calling. Our radiologist needs to meet with you to conduct more exams due to the findings on your mammogram from last week. Please call us to set up an appointment at your earliest convenience.”
My heart sank as soon as I heard the word “Swedish.” I had glibly ignored the technician when she explained that they would only call me if they had concerns. I was sure I would receive the form letter stating everything was fine, just as I had last year. Apparently, everything wasn’t fine.
My second response was to mutter, “I don’t have time for this.” I ignored the call and tried to return my focus back to the residency application I was working on. That worked for about two minutes and then I burst into tears.
Three weeks prior I had received another call from Swedish, this time about an abnormal pap smear. I took that call in stride. I believed my doctor when she said I was probably fine, she just wanted to be sure. I shrugged off my boyfriend’s offer to come with me for the follow up colposcopy procedure and suppressed the memories of fainting and being traumatized after the colposcopy I had twenty years ago. “That doctor didn’t know what she was doing,” I told myself. “And I didn’t understand what was going on, that’s why it was so awful. But this time, it will be different.”
And it was different. It was over before I knew it, I didn’t have to have the dreaded leap follow-up procedure, and besides being told I couldn’t have intercourse for a week, I survived the whole ordeal unscathed.
But now they were calling again. And the cancer word was floating around again. And this time, I wasn’t all right. I was scared. Because the truth of the matter is, even if I dodged this bullet, there would continue to be more bullets. Maybe they wouldn’t hit me, but they would hit my friends and I would not be able to remain unscathed for long. I am forty-one years old. It’s no longer only my grandparents’ and parent’s friends who are getting sick, it’s my generation’s turn.
My friend Misty is currently helping three friends with breast cancer. Not three acquaintances, three dear friends, all going through chemo, all losing their strength, and at times morale, and all facing the big questions in life: “Have I done what I need to do in this lifetime? Have I been a good mother, wife, friend, sister, and daughter? Am I ready to go?”
I don’t need to ask myself these questions, because I already know the answers are “no,” “I’m working on it,” and “hell no.” If my first reaction to being asked to come in for a follow up test is, “I don’t have time for this,” then I certainly don’t have time to get sick, undergo chemotherapy, or go under the knife. I most definitely don’t have space on my calendar for “get cancer and die.”
After my colposcopy, my therapist said, “When the next whammy occurs, because it will, that’s life, I want you to reach out to your boyfriend for help.” Asking for help has never been easy for me. And on the rare occasions I do it, I always ask a woman, never a man. My therapist’s words ran through my brain as I picked up the phone to schedule the appointment, by myself, but then another voice entered my brain. This time it was a man saying, “What’s the point in paying your therapist if you’re just going to ignore what she says?” I hung up on Swedish and called this man.
“I’m scared,” I said.
“Of course you are.”
“Two calls in one month? Someone is trying to get my attention.”
“What do you think it means?” he asked.
“I’m supposed to ask for help?”
“Probably and it’s the ultimate lack of control.”
I didn’t really say “damn,” I swore like a trucker and then I cried again because I knew he was right. I don’t get to control this. I don’t even get to have my opinion considered.
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” he said. “And you don’t have to be fine, you can be a mess.”
I remained a mess and let him comfort me that evening, but when it came time to make the follow up appointment, I chose to bring my friend Erika with me. I could view myself as an asking for help failure, but when Erika said, “Corbin, I’m honored you asked me to help. I’ll clear my schedule for the day,” I chose to praise myself as being an asking for help genius.
“You don’t need to do that. I think the exams will only take an hour.”
“But what if we need to talk with them afterwards,” she said.
“Why would we…. Oh, in case they need to discuss next steps?”
She heard my voice drop, reassured me that this was not going to be the case, but confirmed that she was going to be with me for the duration.
I was hyper focused on work the morning before my exam and remained in a somewhat jovial mode when I picked Erika up. I knew I was in denial, but I didn’t care, I’d cried myself to sleep the night before and needed a reprieve from worry. The woman who conducted my first mammogram a year ago called my name and I squealed, “I had you last time! I like you.”
“I was your first?” she smiled. “Oh good.”
For the next half an hour she squished, rubbed, and cajoled my breasts and body in very awkward angles, but while doing so, she entertained me with lively conversation. At times, we stopped our cackling and grew somber. I told her that even if I was fine on that day, I wondered for how long that would be the case.
“No one is immune from breast cancer,” she said. “It affects us all.”
After an hour of being smashed, radiated, and examined by ultrasound, the Doctor came to see me. Her face was unnervingly grave, making me believe she had bad news. I kept waiting for the “but” in her report and was completely unclear about what she said when she left the room.
“Did she just say I was all right?” I asked Erika.
“She wants you to come back in six months because you have a lot of calcifications in your breasts, but she thinks they’re probably benign.”
“I don’t have cancer?”
I hugged Erika, thanked her, and celebrated that evening with a pedicure and glass of champagne, but it wasn’t a whole-hearted celebration. The state of my breasts and cervix are still a cause for concern for my doctors and need to be closely monitored. I haven’t completely dodged the bullet. And even if I do, it will hit someone I love. As the charming mammogrammer said, “No one is unaffected by breast cancer.”
Corbin Lewars is the author of Creating a Life: The memoir of a writer and mom in the making, which was nominated for the 2011 PNBA and Washington State book awards. Her essays have been featured in over twenty-five publications including Mothering and Hip Mama. She has been a writing coach and instructor for over fifteen years and currently sees clients in the old Carnegie Library Building in Ballard. Contact her for details.