It’s domestic duty day: food shopping, dry cleaners, returning overdue books. I make my one daily cup of coffee, then suck on a square of dark German chocolate, letting it melt on my tongue during slow slurps while I collect the mail from our front entrance. There’s a birthday card for my daughter, Annierose. Birthday. Shoot. My sister’s birthday was yesterday. I look up her work number.
“Hi Christine! Happy belated birthday! Did you do anything special yesterday?”
“Well,” Christine says quietly, “Actually, it was kind of a drag. Can you hold on a second?”
“Sure.” As I start to unload the dishwasher I hear the muted sound of her office door closing. When Christine wants privacy at work, I know something is wrong. My abs do an involuntary crunch.
“I had an ultrasound done on my right breast.”
My hand, holding a dinner plate, goes limp. I know what having an ultrasound means. They’re looking for something.
“There were a couple of unclear spots that looked like cysts on my MRI and presented on the ultrasound as well, so the doctor recommended doing some biopsies.”
My body jolts, not from the coffee, but from the memory of the staple gun piercing my own breast for a biopsy. “How many biopsies?”
“Three. The mammogram was fine.” Her voice wavered. “If it hadn’t been for you, my doctor would have never done the MRI.”
“Thank God she did,” my own voice trembling as I feel the double-edged anguish of wanting—and not wanting—to know if there is something that looks suspicious.
Only eighteen months prior, I’d received a call from my gynecologist.
“Betty, this definitely felt like a fibro adenoma during your physical,” she said. “But your mammogram was fine. I think we should follow up with an ultrasound just to make sure. It’s not urgent. You can schedule it at your convenience.” I pushed the holiday music I was choosing for my piano students aside, to locate my appointment book. “You’ll have to go into Boston because the Lexington facility doesn’t have the equipment.”
“It’s no problem.” Patients came from all over the country for medical treatments at Boston hospitals. A twenty-minute ride was nothing to me.
A week later, I was lying on the exam table in the dark ultrasound imaging room, my breast gloppy from the gel the technician squirted on in gobs. Out of the corner of my eye I could see black spots, white lines, and gray amoeba-like shapes on the monitor. I remembered the joy associated with previous ultrasounds—the fuzzy images of my babies-to-be and the sound of a tiny heart beating. For this ultrasound my emotions were frozen, waiting. The Beethoven Sonata my student was working on wound wearily through my ears.
I waited for the technician to return and to tell me the ultrasound was fine, but a doctor entered instead.
“Ms. Reed, why don’t you sit up so you’re more comfortable?”
I complied, draping the soggy johnny loosely across my chest.
“What we see on your ultrasound does not look suspicious, but we should monitor it closely to document any changes. Normally, I would see you in six months, maybe three, but to be honest, if it were me, I’d have a biopsy. Just to make sure.” Just to make sure. The same words my gynecologist used.
A cold wave of apprehension rose from my abdomen, spreading to my chest, neck, and arms. My fingers turned to icicles. “Yes, I’d want to know, too,” I said. “I’ll schedule the biopsy.” But I really didn’t want to know. My life was transmogrifying, and I couldn’t stop it. One second I was wondering what to make for supper, the next second I was trying to ignore that word—tumor. The first available appointment at Beth Israel wasn’t until late January. Five weeks of waiting, just to make sure? I called the Hoffman Breast Center in Cambridge. They had an opening in two days. I was lucky my insurance plan covered most Boston hospitals. What if it hadn’t? I couldn’t imagine having to go through the holidays in a constant state of anxiety. But many women—who don’t have insurance, who don’t have access to world-renowned hospitals, who don’t have the option of taking off work to have tests done—do wait. Until it’s too late.
The waiting room was small. Seven other women sat, waiting. Waiting to have their breasts compressed between cold metal plates, waiting to wipe off the sticky ultrasound gel from their armpits and chest, waiting to hear the doctor say, I’m going to give your four needles of a local anesthetic. It will probably hurt, but then you shouldn’t feel any more pain. Which pain did he mean? The pain of the piercing needle? The pain of having my breast pushed, pulled, prodded, pricked? The pain of thinking that someday my ten-year-old daughter might have to suffer through this torture, too? Women waiting for the biopsy needle that sounds and feels like a staple gun. Waiting for the silent throbbing pain, despite the anesthetic, to fade. Waiting for the ice-cold fear in our guts to melt. Waiting to hear everything would be fine. But it wasn’t. Not for me.
For weeks, I spent countless, sleepless hours on the computer researching and learning a new language: differentiated, HER2 negative, hormone positive, dissection, adjuvant therapy. I had a bone scan, CT scan, and chest x-ray to make sure the breast cancer had not spread. I spoke with and saw my gynecologist, my primary care physician and, for the first time in this new routine, the breast surgeon.
She found the small lump on my breast at the nine o’clock position.
“Wow, this really is small. And it does feel like a fibro adenoma,” she said. “Who discovered the lump?”
The surgeon’s eyebrows rose above the rim of her glasses. “You should thank her for saving your life.”
After six weeks of radiation, a lumpectomy which left surrounding margins clear of cancer cells, and a hormone medication regimen, I was able to move past the fear of dying and started living again.
But, this is not about me; it’s about Christine. I gulp down the last of my cold coffee.
“When are the biopsies scheduled?”
“Actually, I had them already,” Christine says. “They happened to have a last-minute cancellation, so I took it.” I picture the round circular bandages, new bra padding.
“When will you get the results?”
“I scheduled an appointment with my doctor for next week.”
“Seven days of waiting?”
She exhales into the phone. “I’ve had so many of these cysts over the years, and they all turned out to be nothing.”
I want to reassure her, but the memory of false hope is still too raw. I have my own checkups soon, which always reopen that closed door to the dread, the fear of finding something. I can’t bear to confront death, for me or for my sister. I offer a feeble platitude and hate myself for it. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, Christine.”
“By the way,” Christine says, “We need to plan Annierose’s birthday sleepover weekend.” I’m grateful she has changed the subject.
“Great. She’ll be excited. I can’t believe she’s turning eleven.”
A drizzle of soft rain showers my perennial garden. Two baby buds sprout from the pink rosebush, a gift from my parents when Annierose was born. On her fourth birthday, after a winter of arctic temperatures, there were no blossoms. But the next year her brother Daniel was born and the rose bush bloomed again. I know hope can be dormant; in times of stress my modus operandi has always been to focus on the present, to push the hoping and wishing and dreading the future into a mental hibernation. The lure of birthday party planning is a welcome distraction from worrying about the possibility my sister might have to suffer the agony I experienced.
“Where does the time go?” Christine asks. “What’s her theme this year?”
“Harry Potter. In a week and a half, we’ll have thirteen wizards in our living room. I’ll look at the calendar and email you some possibilities for the sleepover, okay? Stay calm, Christine.”
“You bet,” she says. “Cool as a cucumber.”
We both snicker. Christine hates cucumbers.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein