Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Alien - Part One: Discovery

Exposed from the waste up, I’m standing in front of a giant piece of equipment designed to smash the flesh of my meager breasts until they ooze like thick glue from a crack. In contrast to the technicians in previous sessions, this one seems blaze and a bit careless about the procedure. Zap, zap on each side then a flippant, "You will be called if more views are required." In less than ten minutes, I’m back in the dressing room. Uneasy about the tech's cavalier attitude, I make a mental note to mention my concerns to the doctor three weeks hence at my yearly physical. It had been two years since my last mammogram, plenty of time for a problem to develop.

A few days later I am not surprised when a voice on the other end of the phone explains the need for "more views" and an ultra sound. The day of the next test I have almost convinced myself it is a routine follow up due to the tech’s carelessness until a radiologist with a concerned demeanor is solemnly ushered into the tiny ultra sound room. "The image of the right breast most likely indicates nothing more than thickened breast tissue. It is the left that is worrisome. Rather than watching this I would like to do a bi-lateral ultra-sound guided needle biopsy so we will have a clear answer." My inner voice begins nervously chanting the ominous c-word.

As soon as I return home, I perform a belated self-exam of both breasts. Much to my horror, I can feel a small navy bean near my left armpit not far below the surface of the skin. “How could I have missed this?” I thought, beating myself up for a history of infrequent, less than thorough self-exams and a two-year gap between mammograms.

While I wait the twelve days until the biopsy, a ravenous search of the Internet fills the large gaps in my knowledge about breast cancer detection and treatment options. I am fully prepared for the needles and the noisy suction equipment on the morning of the procedure. The radiologist and the ultra sound technician work quickly and skillfully to complete the nearly painless procedure. Before I leave, the technician hands me two business cards, "If your doctor's office hasn't been in touch by 2:00 on Friday afternoon, you can call us for the results." Damn right I'll call.

I phone our primary care clinic at 2:01 on Friday afternoon- no results yet. Not quite desperate enough to bother the radiologist or technician, I try the records office at the imaging center - still no word. Finally I pull out the business cards and leave a voice mail message for the radiologist. Meanwhile Gary  is making the rounds in person on his way home from Friday afternoon volleyball - first the clinic and then the imaging center - no word.

When the phone rings an hour later, I listen as though the radiologist is talking about someone else while she quietly explains, “as I suspected there is a benign thickening on the right, but I’m sorry to say a small malignancy was found in your left breast. The next step is to see a surgeon as soon as possible.”

Armed with the radiologist’s top choice of surgeons, I immediately call the office only to hear a message that they closed at 2:30. Another weekend of frantic Internet research on survival rates and other titillating topics gives my mind too much to imagine. My inner voice is obsessed with “I don’t want to die.”

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