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Holly Robinson Headshot

Waiting for the Big C

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I hate waiting. Yet, somehow I managed to book my mammogram for the week before Christmas, and found myself waiting for something I didn't want during the busiest week of the year.

I had a lump removed from my breast seven years ago, so getting a mammogram for me is always a cause for heart-pounding, knuckle-biting anxiety. What's more, since that first lousy mammogram, every mole, hive, aching joint and stomach pain makes me wonder: Do I have cancer? Am I dying?

How stupid. Of course I'm dying. We all know how life's movie ends. Still, it didn't help matters that my pre-Christmas technician was one of those perky young ones. She wore a squintingly bright orange t-shirt to set off her sprayed-on tan and chatted like a parakeet as she maneuvered me in and out of the chilly breast sandwich plates. Her sharp nails were scratchy on my bare skin. I shivered like a wet dog at the groomer's.

When she was through, the technician told me to "sit tight, Hon," while she brought my films to the radiologist. She left me in a "For Women Only" waiting room with soothing prints of chubby women in garden hats, picnicking in a forest. Who picked out those particular prints, I wondered. Someone who thought we'd be calmed by them? Someone who thought, Oh, good, the fat women in these pictures will make everyone feel thin?

There's one other woman in the waiting room. She studiously avoids my eyes and flips through her magazine. I wonder which particular circle of hell she's in.

I consider the waiting room magazines, artfully arranged on the table in front of me like a colorful fan by some zealous volunteer. I can't bring myself to take one. It would be like pulling a feather out of a peacock's tail.

Seven years ago, I had the lump removed from my breast because my mammogram showed microcalcifications gathered in a "suspicious cluster." Such a garble of a word, "microcalcifications." Not cancer, just tiny calcium deposits. Lots of women have them. Normally, they show up on mammograms as big and round and scattered, like benign flower petals. But, for some women, microcalcifications appear in patterns associated with malignancy. These are smaller calcium deposits. They're more numerous, and they come in an array of shapes: rods, branches, even teardrops. A good radiologist will feel his hackles rise when he sees them arranged just so.

The last time I had an interesting pattern of microcalcifications, I had a "needle loc" biopsy, as the booking receptionist so breezily referred to it. Her good cheer suggested that there was nothing to fear about the procedure. My boyishly enthusiastic, tactless surgeon's description of it was "just a little slice and dice."

Now I know better. A needle location biopsy is a two-step procedure that takes several hours to complete. It's a type of surgical biopsy that involves more breast sandwiches, but with the added discomfort of a hollow needle inserted into the breast. The hollow needle conveys a long thin wire into your breast in a way that makes you feel like a remote-controlled car. The amount of tissue removed ranges "from the size of a grape to that of an apricot," as my surgeon had explained.

"What am I, a fruit basket?" I joked.

Oh yes. I joked around during that first biopsy. Then I got home and fell apart, plagued by unanswerable questions: Can you go barefoot in heaven? What would my children do without a mother? If I have chemo, will I look as good when I'm bald as Sigourney Weaver did in Alien II?

I waited weeks for those results. Because the local radiologist deemed my biopsied bit of flesh to be "in the gray zone," the tissue had to be sent to a Boston cancer hospital, to a man famous for his breast biopsy readings. This doctor, it turned out, was on vacation for two weeks.

"How dare he take a vacation when I need him?" I joked, and hung up, feeling sorry for that abandoned little piece of me sitting alone in a Boston lab, cooling its tiny heels.

As I waited, I tried to look on the bright side of cancer. If I lost my hair, I could be a shaggy brunette on Tuesdays, a smoky redhead on Thursdays, and hey, why not go blonde all weekend? Breast cancer could have other benefits, too. I could finally say no to the PTO! I'd book that vacation to Spain!

When the biopsy results arrived, they weren't the best, but they weren't the worst, either: I had DCIS, which means "Ductal Carcinoma in Situ." The treatment was a lumpectomy, which the insurance company insisted on calling a "partial mastectomy." I cried, because it suddenly seemed as if a piece of me had gone renegade: The breast that had once nursed my three children was acting up. Naughty, naughty breast, after all of that money I'd spent on expensive lingerie and bathing suits! If that was the thanks I got, maybe I'd just ask the surgeon to lop the whole thing off.

On the day of the surgery, the only truly bad moment came in the operating prep room, where I made the mistake of asking a nurse how much she thought the surgeon would remove. She patted my hand with a smile. "Oh, he'll probably take out a chunk the size of a plum. You'll be just fine."

A plum! Can't these people think about anything beside fruit? I fumed, and then the mask was over my face. The next thing I knew, my husband was leading me out to the car with a bandaged boob, a woozy head and strict instructions to avoid my favorite underwire bras.

As I recovered from the lumpectomy, I had one more visit with my surgeon, who said, "Well, there's no such thing as a 100 percent cure for cancer, but I'd say you're in the 99 percent range." He'd gotten clean margins all around the affected tissue, which meant I wouldn't need radiation or chemo. "Go home," he said. "Be happy."

And so I have. For the last seven years, I've managed to do just that -- except when I worry about having the Big C.

"What I hate about cancer is this feeling that I'm disappearing one piece at a time," complained a friend as she headed into her second skin cancer surgery recently.

"Me, too," I agreed. "Only with me, it's probably going to be one melon ball at a time."

We laugh about our battle scars, my friends and I. What else is there to do? We're all learning to wait with grace, and trying to remember that waiting is really just another part of living.

So take your next piece, I silently admonished the radiologist and the surgeon as I sat in the waiting room the week before Christmas, still not touching the magazines on the table. I know I'm not alone. I can deal.

The technician finally came back, all smiles. The other woman in the waiting room and I looked at each other. It was my name the technician was calling. I stepped out into the hallway, supposedly out of earshot, though I knew the other woman must be listening avidly, trying to see which one of us was going to make up the next count of breast cancer patients in this hospital, this country. We know we're in this together.

"Everything looks fine," the technician said. "Go ahead and get dressed. Merry Christmas."

Indeed. Happy New Year, too. And may every woman know that she is never alone in the waiting room.