I am driving up to Stanford Hospital for my second post-cancer mammogram. I turn on NPR, looking for distraction from the fear that sits in my belly, just inside my solar plexus. I know I should “just sit with the fear,” the certain knowledge that the line between life as a survivor and life as a cancer patient is paper-thin. I know that life can change irrevocably in a moment, sitting in a pastel-colored room, half-naked with a paper gown crinkling on my shoulders.
I am driving up alone. Karyn is working today. She is jet-lagged from her trip to India and struggling to manage her first few days back at work. I made a half-assed effort to get someone else to come with me, but ultimately, I decided to come here alone. Do I really want to have to deal with someone else’s reaction should I get bad news?
Chances are I am fine. Chances are my mammogram will be normal. Chances are I have made it two years past my diagnosis without a recurrence. But I never thought I would get cancer the first time.
NPR was far too loud and harsh for me. The story I tuned into was about a reality TV show in Brazil that tracked local murders. The reporters consistently got to the crime scene before the police. It ends up the producer, a drug dealer, had orchestrated five of the murders to get rid of his competitors and his enemies. I switched off the radio. I tried a CD instead.
Yesterday, my student, Sam, had loaned me a recording of Mary Oliver reading Mary Oliver. I opened the green case and put that in the CD player instead. I╒d never heard her voice before. It was a clear, quiet, unassuming voice and I listened rapt as I listened to her read poems I had never heard before, not just the most famous ones, but others. I took particular delight in this one:
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
~ Mary Oliver ~
Arriving at the hospital, I park in the lot and walk into the cancer center. A bald woman sits at a table outside the coffee shop where I ate so many cups of soup with saltine crackers. A man walks by with a huge face mask. A man pushes an old woman with a chemo hat down the hall.
I check in at radiology. Sit down to wait. Go into the little dressing room where I am instructed to undress to the waist and put my clothes in a pumpkin-colored shopping bag with a “Stanford Hospital and Clinics” logo on the side. There is a large mirror directly in front of me. I can see my breasts, the scars running underneath and up the center to the a huge, unavoidable mirror in such a tiny vulnerable room? Did they think that women coming to find out if they have cancer wanted to be confronted with their drooping chests and soft bellies?
As I sit and wait my turn, I decide to stop and feel what is happening inside my body. There is an alert sense of poise, a tight remembering of all that has gone before. This annual rite of passage is no longer simply an uncomfortable slamming of my breasts in a unrelenting cold vise. It is a yarzheit, the anniversary of a time when my illusions of health and assumptions of longevity died.
Yet I survived and I am alive. If I had lived in another century or been born in a poorer country, I would be dead right now. But I am not. I am sitting here thinking these thoughts. My body feels strong and healthy. At this particular moment, cancer is in my past. It is an experience that has shaped me, rather than one that is consuming me. Yet I know that could all change today.
In the screening room, the technician is kind and efficient. She takes six views and as she works and I wince, I can see my breast eerily floating on the computer screen, complete with the tiny little dark tags they left inside to show the places cancer was removed.
More than anything, I am grateful for this technology, grateful that domestic partner laws enable me to have the insurance that lets me have this test. I am grateful to the doctors and scientists and engineers who designed this equipment that saves so many lives. So many women go untested until it is too late. I know I am lucky to be here. And if, by chance, more cancer is found, what better place could I be than Stanford Hospital, to be a North American with resources, savvy, friends and health insurance?
I was just called in for a second round of pictures. Follow up pictures of my left breast. This is the breast that didn’t have any cancer. The technician says there’s something right under my nipple. The radiologist wants to be sure.
A different technician is taking the pictures this time. She╒s unrelentingly cheerful in a smock covered with butterflies as she takes rolling, twisting, high-pressure pictures of my left breast. “The thickening could just be scar tissue,” she tells me. It could be. “Don’t breathe,” she tells me. Believe me, I’m not.
As I stand contorted and pressed into the cold hands of the machine again, I don’t want to feel what I feel, tightness building in my chest, a great ocean wave of pressure, my mind racing ahead into what might be.
Ten minutes later, I am dumped back out in the waiting room with my pink flowered gown and my laptop. My fingers on the keys are familiar and comforting. There is nothing to do but sit here and wait.
I wonder what I will do if my cancer returns. Will I keep eating my clean anti-cancer diet? Will I keep taking the supplements that cost me hundreds of dollars a month? Will I keep training for my walk? Will I continue to prop up the illusion that I can do something to keep illness and death at bay? That I have control over when I live and when I die.
There is nothing to do but wait.
“So sorry,” the technician says, coming out to me. “But there were a couple of pictures I forgot to get on the right side.” So in I go for a third time. “I’m sorry, but today’s my last day. I’m a short-timer.” Am I a short-timer, I wonder?
Back out in the waiting room. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Finally, a woman comes for me. “Miss Davis, you’re free to go.” I’ve gotten the all clear.
My body settles, my blood pressure quiets, my neck unclenches. I dress and walk down the hall to wait for my annual check up with my surgeon. On the way, I see the chair massage person who is often on duty here at Stanford in the Cancer Clinic, giving free chair massages, a true patient benefit. I put my name on the waiting list. A woman in a pink suit with pink plastic shoes is getting her massage, face down in the chair. Her name is Heida. Her husband sits nearby talking about why they drove three hours to be seen here. “I wanted a real doctor, not someone who herds sheep four days a week and is a doctor the other three.”
As I wait, my body continues to deflate. The next woman to climb on to the chair is wearing an orange sweat suit. She talks about how she had a hysterectomy and the doctors missed the cancer while they were in there. “That’s why we say that doctors practice medicine,” she jokes. “I just celebrate each day,” she continues. “Cancer has taught me to celebrate each day.”
A woman in a uniform comes by and asks if I want a cup of tea or coffee. A few minutes later, she puts a steaming cup of peppermint tea in my hands. I could get used to this.
Finally, it’s my turn. The massage is wonderful, but the effects have worn off by the time I wait an hour-and-a-half for my 11:30 appointment. I catch up on all the paperwork I brought with me, check Facebook on my phone, and read every folded up newspaper in the place. Finally, a nurse leads me in to an empty exam room.
An intern comes in to do an initial exam. She looks like she’s twelve. Really. She looks twelve. She asks the standard follow-up questions and then tells me my mammograms were perfect. Then I am waiting again. Why do they always do that in doctor’s offices? They give you a new place to wait to create the illusion that you are going to be seen. Then they leave you for another half hour.
Finally Doctor Wopnir, my surgeon, comes in. I love her. She did a great job and has always been personable and friendly, informative and funny. Besides she read one of my books and so I am not just a number on her chart. She greets me with genuine warmth. After a thorough breast exam and a prescription to help vaginal dryness, I am back on my way home. When I go to pay the parking lot attendant, I’ve been there six hours.
Driving home over 17, I am so exhausted, I struggle to keep my eyes open. I barely make it home and sleep for two hours. Finally, mammogram day is over.