When the doctor told me that I needed to have a mammogram I was mentally flippant. The thoughts were basically, "sure, no problem." To my knowledge no one in my family had ever had breast cancer so no history, no worries. Ignorance is not bliss.
My only concern at the time was finding the imaging center as I have absolutely no sense of direction. After all, I am the person who coming back from a weekend trip one time missed the one and only turn I had to make and had us many miles out of the way before I realized my error. I can and often do work myself up into an unnecessary mental state worrying about things. As it was, I had time though to find the place and believe me I went out of my way to find it before hand. I asked directions, I searched on line and I drove out to the location and around to the side of the building where it was located. Still on the appointed day I was a nervous wreck until I pulled into that parking area where I was to go, parked and entered the building.
Now my only concern was for the coming embarrassment, discomfort and pain. I am a self-conscious person who is very uncomfortable when it comes to body parts being exposed even to medical personnel. That and the fact that I had after all heard all of the horror stories connected with mammograms. Walking down that wide hallway I had a somewhat better understanding of those walking that last mile. The way was well lit but my fear made it dark.
Signing in at the window I then moved through the doors and entered the waiting area. This was a very comfortably decorated room. Designed to make one feel at home with an understated elegance. I was still nervous. I tore up a tissue, I read and reread those little informational cards- not remembering a thing on them and I shifted repeatedly in my chair. After waiting, called to fill out insurance information and then waiting a little more I was called back. Shown to a dressing room and told to strip to the waist and dress in a nice fat, fluffy robe. That done I sat down to wait and tremble. If trembling were a weight loss tool I would have lost several pounds sitting in that room. While I waited all manner of thoughts flowed through my mind. Thoughts that were to some degree expected and logical and some that came from way out in left field that were the manifestations of a frantic mind. To some degree- man,y if not most -of us fear the unknown. Especially when you know others that love to share all of the horror stories they know, whether personal or one of those it happened to..' stories. The mind and one's imagination can create havoc. Combined, they can take you to places where there is no reason to go. Only when you have the mental aptitude to keep those fears and thoughts in check are you prevented from acting out physically. Right when my fear was reaching its crescendo I heard my name called through the door. Even though I had known it was coming I was still startled from my mental ramblings and jumped slightly. Standing, I took a deep breath and opened the door. It was waiting.
Following the technician down the short hallway I was giving myself a mental pep-talk. It would be fine, no worries, no pain, no problems. Self wasn't listening very well. Passing through a door with warning signs around it I looked at one of the strangest machines that I had ever seen, and I didn't like it. The technician wasted no time and as she instructed I followed to the best of my ability. All the while babbling on, making the same comments that she had probably heard thousands of times before and some that could come only from someone like me who has an unusual sense of humor and unique oddness about them. Even through all of that she was very professional and I soon lost most of the embarrassment and found that the discomfort was not nearly as bad as I had feared. It was definitely not something that I would want to deal with on any schedule other than once a year, but I was not in the excruciating pain I had built of the fear for. When she told me afterward that I may get called back due to nothing to compare to I wasn't worried. I had done the mammogram thing, it was over, it was good I was about to go back to my so-called normal life and not worry about this again until next year.
That flippant attitude continued even when I did receive the message and returned for the images they needed. It was the day after Thanksgiving, mom and I were going shopping and my thoughts were on all of the great deals we were missing not on what was taking place. If anything I was feeling slightly annoyed. Mom was with me as once this was finished we were going to head out and find out what deals might be left. Impatience more than anything fueled my emotions as I sat, waited, followed, undressed and entered the imaging room. I was annoyed right up until they only took images of one side. I was told to sit and wait while the image was shown to a doctor. Another set of images later I was told the same thing. After the third set I was slightly concerned, especially when I was told they needed an ultrasound. Fear is like a kudzu plant. It starts out as a tiny sprout and then grows uncontrollably when allowed. Walking back down the hallway to wait, listening to the technician actually babbling on about shopping that first tiny sprout was trying to peek out. I don't like being afraid. It is not a comfortable emotion. I do not ride those thrill rides at amusement parks partly because of that. I don't like heights, I don't like feeling like I'm falling and I don't like not knowing what others do especially when it comes to me and my health. Even my mother who was still waiting for me picked up on the babbling and wondered.
Lead back to another area of the building I followed instructions and waited yet again in another cold room. When you are beginning to feel fear, a cold room is one of the last places you want to be. It only amplifies the trembling. The actual ultra-sound wasn't a problem. I watched the images on the screen and watched as she returned time and time again to the same area. She knew what she was looking at, I didn't. Again the unknown and the fear that comes with it sprouted a bit higher.
I was told that I would need to see a surgeon as there was "something" showing up. My attempt at shrugging it off in agreement didn't quite have the same effect that it had in the beginning. Mom and I didn't go shopping. The mood to find bargains was no longer there. Instead in the back of my mind was the question, do I have cancer?
I believe that fear, nerves, worry all have a cancer type affect on one. It grows, consuming one's thoughts and actions. You try to put it out of your mind, you try to push it aside only to have it return time and again. You go on about your business, taking care of your daily life and all the while its still there hounding you.
I loved my surgeon immediately. She has the best personality and style of dress. She is her own self with a wonderful attitude. I had worried about this meeting. I tend to say odd things at odd times and have people give me 'that look' letting me know they wonder if my keepers know that I'm running loose. In this doctor I found somewhat of a kindred spirit. She examined the images and told me that they-the almighty They- thought something was there. She showed me where the 'something' was and that it didn't have a defined appearance. That was when mouth opened and I told her it looked like a cat. She glanced at me and then the image and reluctantly agreed. She told me that she wanted to do her own ultra-sound. When I asked her if it would really be a cat scan she said "No..its an ultra-sound." but when the assistant she called came in she told the assistant that she wanted to do a 'cat-scan' I loved the expression on the girl's face. It brought that Kudzu in my mind down a notch. Even when the ultra-sound showed the same thing that 'they' had found I wasn't really too terribly concerned. When she told me that she wanted to do a needle biopsy I shrugged. I thought we would set up an appointment. Nope, she did it right then.
When we allow emotions to control us they can hurt. Broken hearts, separation and loneliness, fear of any kind, deceit of a friend..but that needle going in and the after effects...now that was pain and not merely an emotional one. The sample would be sent off and we would have the results in a week. that fear Kudzu plant can grow a lot in a week if you allow it. I was doing my best not to allow it. When it came back showing the possibility and that she needed to do a surgical biopsy I knew.
How many emotions does one actually have? Joy, love, hope, faith, trust, fear, hate, worry. You could start naming them and with all their variations never reach the end of the list. That was what I was feeling. I returned to work a mental mess. The foremost and strongest emotion was that I did not want to deal with this. I did not want to go through with this. I was not happy, I was angry, and I was a little afraid. Kudzu grows quickly.
Back in a far corner of the department I gave in and leaned over a box waited to be filled and prayed with all of the passion that I could pray. I did NOT want this. I am unashamedly a Christian. I believe in the Hope. When I prayed I was answered. Just not in the way I expected. Chastisement of the Spirit gets your attention, but it let me know I was not alone. The fear that had been eating at me- left. The creeping Kudzu plant wilted and fell away.
The surgical biopsy was an inconvenience that I had to deal with to get to the real ball game. Questions and tests and presurgery stuff out of the way my husband took me to the outpatient building and we waited. It was raining that morning and it fit my mood. I had to be here but I didn't want to be. I was only slightly nervous, mainly because I was once again dealing with the unknown. I had never had any surgery before this was new ground for me. Everyone was so very nice though, my fears and concerns eased. I knew what they would find, but now I was girded for battle, I was not alone.
When the biopsy showed the cancer I did not fall apart. I did not panic. I did not cry, moan or curse the fates. I matter -of- factly told her that she knew what and where it was- go get it. Game on.
The most difficult part in all of this so far was that I was going to have to tell my family that I had cancer. My husband was on a bus headed for a potential job. I called him and broke the news over the phone. I knew he didn't want to wait, he had made me promise to call. He was concerned, wanted to know if I wanted him to come back but I told him there was nothing he could do, continue on and see about the job. My mother took it better--or hid it better-- than I had hoped. My brother that lives the closest- he took it hard. He refused to look at me at first. I guess when you are facing our mortality for the first time it does make one confused and distressed. It took a few minutes but I finally got him past that. It was going to be okay. I knew though that I didn't want to deal with anything like the same reactions at work so I purchased a pink ball cap with the awareness ribbon on the front and wore that to work the next day. Of course it was questioned as I do not generally wear a cap but it broke all the ice and work went on and those who had dealt with this before me rallied to my side.
There is a lot more preparations that need to be made for surgery than I had ever realized. How many times can they ask you the same questions? How many different people need the same information? How many times must you have the same tests? Why do MRI's have to be so frightening? Well, at least to me and my not so lovely claustrophobia. Why are hospital rooms- any and all hospital rooms so freaking cold? I do really love those heated blankets though. A lot of different people came in as I was preapring for the surgery. Each with their own purpose. Each very friendly and very professional. Each managing to calm my nerves a little bit more. I wasn't so much afraid. I knew what they were going to do, and it wasn't as if they were doing back or heart surgery, but that level of concern and fear was determined not to be ignored. I think that they have the timing of that anesthesia down to an art form. Both times the minute I entered the operating room the first and last thing I saw was that bank of lights- then it was lights out.
Waking up after surgery is an adventure in itself. Disorientation is not fun. Trying to figure out where you are and why you are there. Who is that calling your name and why are so many people staring at you expectantly? Getting dressed and going home is always a relief whether it was a major or minor reason for your visit. Sleepy and nauseated from the anesthesia I went straight to bed and pretty much stayed there. I got up a couple times to talk with people and let them know I was doing okay but for the most part I lost two days. The day of and the day after the surgery. Now the real fun would begin.
Once the bandages were removed and I had healed up slightly I was sent to see an oncologist. Another professional type person that I had to see and try to figure out their personality and find out where the lines were drawn as to what part of my sense of humor would be accepted and what would get me those so familiar looks. He turned out to be a very nice doctor and gentleman. He, too, had a wonderfully quick, witty and bright sense of humor. Amazing- but not surprising- how blessings are given. The first visit was a fact finding one. Afterward I would get my schedule. It still had not been determined if I would need chemotherapy. I wasn't afraid too much of the radiation..and I wasn't afraid really of the chemotherapy. My pride simply did not like the idea of losing my hair. Even though I complained about it for various reasons on a regular basis, it was my hair and I didn't want to lose it. Pride is a silly thing actually. Turns out my fears were relieved and I didn't have to face that threat as I did not need chemotherapy- only the radiation.
Fear of the unknown crept up again on that first day. I had no idea what was about to happen and I did not in any way look forward to it. The treatments turned out to be not so bad in themselves. It was the after effects that got me. Each day I grew more tired. Each day the weariness threatened my ability to function. Every single step was difficult. They were acts of sheer determination. I had no energy, thoughts and emotions took too much to feel. I was a machine doing what I had to and only what I had to just to get by. I had to totally change my diet. No more chocolate- no junk food period. The processed sugars only made the exhaustion worse. I allowed myself one cup of coffee a day- the rest of the time it was water. I was always thirsty, downing bottle after bottle of water a day. I carried one with me at all times. I had to learn to allow others to do for me. I- the person who prided herself on her self efficiency had to have help doing simple things. People I did not know who were reading the columns that were running in the paper would see me attempting to lift something and would rush to my aid. I received multitudes of cards and letters from people. Strange these feelings.
Cancer can and does give you a feeling of isolation. You know you are not the only person to have dealt with it. You are not the first and you won't be the last. But-- this is you. The fear that tries so hard to consume you. The loneliness in those times when you let down your guard, the exhaustion that you fight, the sickness from treatments. All battles you must fight and even when you have people at your side, they can only do so much. They can lift things for you, they can cook meals, do housework, drive you places...but they cannot fight the battle. As your body fights against the invader your mind and heart fight against the emotions that threaten.
The entire time I was in my particular battle even as my family and friends were around, they could not be around all of the time. I found a healing presence waiting for me on the many long walks that I began to take. Always along the route, and I took the exact same route daily, there was something special waiting for me. I found flowers that I had never noticed before, I found an amazing variety of insects. Deer, raccoon and opossum appeared on various occasions. There was always something amazing waiting to remind me that I was not taking this journey alone. There in lay my peace.
All of this was in 2008. Still today I can and do look back on that. It is a forever part of me. I faced and dealt with the emotional side of this thing. I was able to write about it then and write about it now. I have shared and continue to share my experience not for pity or attention, but to let others know that it is something that can be faced, can be beaten. Do I ever worry about it returning? I wouldn't be human if I didn't..but if it does. I know who is on my side.