I’ve always found radiology screening offices to be a bit like the setting of an Agatha Christie story.
There’s the familiar cast in the waiting room: Receptionists, smiling and efficient, handing out forms to be filled in, like nothing bad in the world has happened recently or might happen any time soon.
There's the perfectly dressed organized lady, turning up for self-care. She dials down her anxiety, by continually texting, or writing notes. She stands up. She sits down. She flicks through the occasional magazine, with an air of forced invincibility
There's the older lady in a wheelchair, with her daughter or niece. They talk too loud. They both know time is likely on the short side for one of them, so they don’t make space for sadness.
The terrified woman who found a lump on her breast and tried to ignore it. She hides in the corner, drowning in horrific visions of what it might be.
And there's me. Or someone like me.
When I was diagnosed with the big C, I got a message from my lovely friend, Bethany. Having navigated an intense journey with cancer herself, she wrote “Welcome to the club that nobody wants to join. Here however/whenever you need me.”
I am forever grateful to her. It’s the message I pass on to others who join our club. Then, if they ask, I tell them my journey: They found it, sorted it. It’s all good. I have pills to take for a while, and I have a mammogram every 12 months and an ultrasound every 12 months - that way I’m never more than six months without a screening. But I’m clear. Free and clear.
This week was mammogram week and truth be told, I wasn't feeling the love.
My body decided it was done with the meds. It happens that way sometimes. Big sore mouth, cardboard body, lips like they've been Kardashianed, and tongue like the sole of an old slipper. It's not a huge big deal - there are other treatments - but it meant I wasn’t feeling particularly perky.
In the changing room, eying my reflection in the mirror, I marveled that Mammogram capes have to be the only ones that don't let you feel like a superhero.
And then there I was, in the room with the big squeezy breast machine and a smart efficient breast tech in her 30s. I tried to look a little bright, or at least friendly, but it’s just plain fact that when you feel like shit, you’re not inclined to place your boobies in a waffle maker.
Clipboard in hand, she checked my details and we discussed what areas had to be scanned. She was very gentle and I realized that because I was so quiet she thought I was terrified. So I said, “Honestly just move me where you need me. I'm not scared to be here because a mammogram saved my life.
She smiled. A great wide smile.
“It saved my life too.” she said.
So there we were: two members of The Club Nobody Wants To Join.
Her story was more a Tolkien novel rather than my, “Ladybird Guide to breast cancer,” but happily we’ve both ended up on solid ground. Then she explained how afterwards she’d decided to become a mammogram tech because she wanted to show hope.
“I wish people would stop calling it “a battle.” I said. “It’s more a mystery. I’ve tried to muscle through these drugs that were clearly screwing with me because they seemed to be fine with everyone else on the planet. Like there was some kind of integrity to it. And I didn’t want to be weak. and it’s nothing fricking’ personal. Your body does what your body does. And there’s sometimes not much you can do about it.”
“People say battle because they want you to feel brave and not scared,” she said.
“Honestly, I mostly don't feel either,” I said, “I’m just getting on with it.”
“I reckon that's true for most of us,” she replied
We did the exam, working to make sure the images were clear, and I actually learned stuff - apparently the tighter the squeeze of the machine, the less radiation used for imagery. Who knew?
“Thank you,” I said when we finished. “I thought about calling it off today, because well .. you know ”
She nodded. “I do. No matter how you feel, nobody ever really wants to…”
“Stick their boobies in a waffle maker? No.” I said.
We both laughed, and I told her I wasn’t training to be a mammogram tech anytime soon. She said it really wasn't for everybody.
On the way out, I told the receptionists how wonderful she was. (Amazing how effusive you can be with a fat tongue.) They chuckled like I’d just given them a cake.
The efficient lady momentarily stood still, and the niece translated something in Spanish to the lady in the wheelchair, and I may have imagined it, but the woman hiding in the corner looked a tiny bit less terrified.
A few drug-free days and I’m feeling so much better. And I keep thinking about the woman who did my scan.
I'm definitely not going to become a breast tech. I'm not technical that way, and besides, there’s completely nothing that makes me want to get up close and personal to anybody’s armpits, ever. But I do write a blog.
So I figured this week, I could tell you something that might be helpful.
A mammogram saved my life.
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