I don't have breast cancer. I had a breast cancer scare, which makes me about as un-unique as they come since more than half of cancer-free women who are screened annually over the course of a decade will have what is known as a false positive on a mammogram. The root of my scare was a little deeper because breast cancer has struck at targets all around my life but always missed the bull's eye that is me.
It just happened again and I need to talk about it. And let me begin with a tip of the hat to those whose scares turn out to be real, which again, mine wasn't. You have my admiration for your strength, my respect for your courage and my pledge to never again say no when you ask me to wear a pink ribbon or cough up a few bucks to support you when you walk in a fundraiser for breast cancer research. You got me with this last scare. Fear has its own way of leaving scars.
For about a month now, I've experienced sporadic pain in my left breast. I immediately turned to the best resources I know -- my friends who are breast cancer survivors. "Does breast cancer hurt?" I besieged them. No, not generally, they told me with a few adding "unless...." I didn't need them to finish the sentence. Breast cancer doesn't generally hurt unless the tumor is sufficiently large, and large tumors, as a rule, are not a good thing. Got it.
I spent hours in the mirror staring at myself when no one was around, thinking of my best friend Robin Goldstein who died from breast cancer at age 35. I reminded myself that the kind of breast cancer that young women get is more aggressive than the one that typically strikes older women. I am 62. Happy, happy to be 62, I told myself.
At the urging of friends, I moved up my annual mammogram to last Friday. I told the technician of the pain and of the fibroid tumor that sits behind the nipple in that breast. It's been there since my first mammogram in 1988 and has remained unchanged ever since. I dutifully tell each new radiologist about it and keep my original X-rays in my possession.
"We'll call you if there's a problem," was the receptionist's farewell as I left. I pushed all worry out of my head, smug that I had done what needed to be done. I wasn't an ostrich with her head in the sand, after all.
I was fine until a few days ago when I got the call I didn't want. Followup tests were necessary, I was told, and uh, could I come in right away? I drove as fast as I could and was there in minutes, yet the trip over was long enough for my mind to go to all those dark places. I have two children who need me. I have a husband who would fall apart. I have a job with health insurance that I would surely need to keep.
For the record, I have long-admired people who can contain their worry, but I recognize I am not one of them. I respect how some people process each step calmly and keep their fears in proportional check. Me? When my worry train leaves the station, it barrels full steam ahead.
Fighting back tears and playing out scenes in my head where I bravely tell my kids how "everything will be fine," I walked into the imaging lab, which days ago seemed so harmless and now felt ominous. I was led to a different room; was this the room they use to tell you you have cancer?
"Hello, I'm Yolanda. How are you today?" the woman who would be doing my ultrasound introduced herself. I think she said Yolanda, maybe it was Wanda. How was I supposed to remember her name when all I want to know is whether I'm OK or not?
"I'm fine," I told her, returning her smile. I'm seriously not fine, I shouted inside my head. I'm fucking terrified.
She put the warm gel on my breast and began her work, eyes staring at her machine.
"How do you deal with terrified women all day long?" I asked her, trying to pretend that I wasn't one of them.
"I don't look at their faces," Yolanda-Wanda said, not looking at mine. She answered my next question before I asked it. "If I look at them, they ask me if I've found anything. Then they try and read my face."
"OK, have you found anything? And please look at me!" I told her, in the lightest voice I could manage. She laughed, and kept her eyes on her screen. Yolanda-Wanda knew her stuff.
She excused herself to fetch the doctor, leaving me to pickle in my own worry. If they told me I needed a biopsy, would I still go to my daughter's volleyball game? Next week is so jammed with kid stuff and work assignments, could a surgery be delayed? I remember the 90-year-old spa queen I interviewed who had had breast cancer decades earlier. She told the doctors on the spot to "get rid" of her breasts -- just like that. Would I ever get my head to that place?
Yolanda-Wanda re-entered, alone. More delays, I feared, more tests without answers.
"You can get dressed. You are free to go. It was nothing of concern," she said. Nothing of concern? My breasts, my life, something was seen somewhere by someone that led to being thrown into this abyss and it was nothing of concern.
And that, friends, is what a false positive feels like.