My old friend Bonnie and I were sitting in the Sutter hospital cafeteria last Friday. She was eating a bowl of grits and I was drinking black tea and we were swapping stories of our respective surgeries and treatments for breast cancer, mine going on three years ago, hers going on eight years ago. We were telling some of the same stories we’ve told over and over when I commented that we’re becoming like old war vets, repeating ourselves. “Yeah,” she said. “WWBC.” We’re like our parents’ generating reminiscing about “the Big One.” Are we repeating ourselves because we’re getting old or because the stories are inherently compelling or because it’s the telling of them that allows us to integrate and make sense of the experience? Probably all of the above.
It was the day of my annual mammogram, a morning of stress. For us “vets,” these days come once or twice a year. Bonnie has an annual mammogram. I have a mammogram in the fall and an MRI in the spring, since my cancer was of the type that is difficult to find on mammograms and, in fact, evaded detections for who knows how many years.
I think of these events and the few days leading up to them as days of terror. I know I’m well, and yet in the back of my survival-instinct mind, there’s a tiny little voice that whimpers “what if it’s coming back?”
In September when I told Bonnie of my upcoming mammography date, she immediately offered to go with me. That’s what she does. She doesn’t give a red cent to the faux charities that prey on cancer fear to fill their coffers and line the pockets of their executives. Her giving is to accompany friends to doctors’ appointments. Last week alone, she did this for me and two other women, one who needs a hysterectomy and another who needed her mental health medications to be adjusted.
I pick Bonnie up in Berkeley and we drive in to the Carol Reed Breast Health Center on “pill hill” in Oakland. On the way, I tell her that I’m nervous, can’t shake the anxiety and post-traumatic stress. She entertains me with her theory that intelligent people are more prone to high anxiety because our brains don’t turn off and we’re constantly scouring the environment for possible hazards. True or not, her idea cracks us up.
Bonnie hasn’t been to Carol Reed before and she’ impressed. Whereas some of the other mammography centers in the East Bay are drab and dull, this place was deliberately designed to soothe. And yet it’s not at all tacky or overwrought.
One enters a vestibule with soft lights and easy art. Even though it’s October, these people have common sense. There’s no pink crappola on the walls or counters. Staff members are calm and helpful but they get it that this is serious business and they don’t trivialize it.
They do, however, make it a bit of a spa experience. After checking in, one is guided into the “bamboo room” where there are, again, soft lights and wood paneled lockers. A volunteer hands me a plush white spa robe and a big plastic bag labeled “Patient’s Belongings.” (I save these bags as they’re great for knitting projects and it’s an in-joke that an addicted knitter is a bit of a “patient.”)
From the “bamboo room,” I’m escorted into the “butterfly room” to wait to be called. I’m surprised that they let Bonnie come with me and don’t make her stay in the waiting area. She’s there in case I freak out, as I did last year when Doctor C. surprised me with a request that he do an ultrasound. I thought it meant he had found something like he had in 2011, but, no, he was just being thorough.
We sit now in a well lit room while three other white-robed women sit, nervously playing with their smart phones. At least this is a place that does diagnostic mammograms, meaning that the radiology doctors read the films right on the spot. With the screening mammograms done in other facilities, one goes in and out and then waits days or weeks for a letter that says all is OK or that you need to come back for further testing. That’s much scarier.
Within just a few minutes, I’m called in and technician Kimberly does the usual squishing of my boobs between two plates, taking shots at several angles. Thankfully, Dr. K is there today and he’ll be the one reading my mammograms. I’m relieved to hear this and ask Kimberly to please have Dr. K. come out and give me a hug.
Dr. K. is one of the leading radiology doctors in the Sutter system. He did my biopsy and when I had my surgeries, he accompanied the surgeon to guide her with radiology to find the exact location of the lobular tumors. I’m not big on adulating authority figures, but this doctor’s energy and manner make me want to gush. Bonnie wants to meet him.
After just a few minutes of waiting, the technician comes in and invites me and Bonnie to come speak with Dr. K. in the hallway. He’s got a big smile on his face, says “everything’s fine. Nothing has changed.” I throw my arms around him and we squeeze. Bonnie shakes his hand and thanks him. He reminds me again that lobular cancer is hard to detect and that’s why they’re so vigilant.
I say my silent prayers of thanks to the Sustainer. We go back to the locker room to get my shirt and then we head on over to the cafeteria to celebrate before I’ll take Bonnie to her office.
This ritual of repeatedly wondering, testing, waiting for results and pronouncements is why cancer is never really “over.”
Fear rises with each new reminder that “it” may come back one day. In the interim, I aspire to enjoy every minute of my life, and to not waste time with anything or anyone that does not bring me something to learn or value.
What makes healing possible is the vortex of quality care I continue to receive and praise. I need a friend like Bonnie to accompany me to appointments, and there she is, just present, with humor and love. I need the kind of doctors I’ve been fortunate to encounter through each passage. I need, and have, my faith that no matter what happens, I’ll still be OK.