Ladies, this is my yearly public service announcement. Don’t forget your mammogram.
My alarm went off at 4:45…IN THE MORNING! I must’ve been crazy to set an appointment in Atlanta for 7:00 a.m. It is summer after all, a teacher’s best sleep-in-late time. When I was talking to the appointment desk it seemed like such a good idea…get up early, beat the traffic, be first in line, get finished before lunch…maybe, if I am lucky. My last visit to the Atlanta Breast Care Center took 5 hours. Yep. Not kidding. It sucks to be high risk, but this place is state of the art and has every machine and test you could need. You go there because if they find something, they can diagnose it while you wait. They can ultra-sound, MRI, mammogram, and biopsy…right then…right there… you see the doctor to get your results… and before you leave you have a plan of action. That is IF they find something. But your prayer is that they will not find anything, and that you will sit in your gaping robe for 5 hours trying not to flash every other woman who is sitting in the room with you. You pray for an uneventful time to read your book, uninterrupted by nurses calling your name for further testing.
However, the moment the alarm sounded I wondered if I was crazy to schedule this early. I thought about canceling, but to get in at this place takes 6 months or more. You see, I have to go to this specialist because even though it has been 8 years since my cancer, I will never be truly free of the label “cancer patient.” Uterine and ovarian cancers are chronic…meaning they usually reappear at some point, therefore I am watched like a hawk. Particularly for colon and breast cancers, since those are the most likely places for recurrence. Normally I am all in regarding scans and tests because I do NOT want to have cancer again, and if I do get it I want it to be early enough they can do something about it. However, at 4:45 a.m. my gung-ho attitude is lacking. My vigilance is waning and I only want to sleep. Then I remember that leaving even 5 minutes later can translate into hours on 400 at this time of day, so I drag myself up. My action is successful because I make it down to Northside Hospital area in an hour and a half. Traffic is just starting to clog the roads as I take my exit in record time.
Once I arrive at my destination, I am funneled through the stations quickly because I am like the 3rd person in line. So far my plan seems to be working. Never have I seen the “husband” waiting room empty. Never, have there been so many empty hangers in the changing room. I adjust my gown and enter the nearly bare first station waiting area. I sit, but no sooner do I get my book open than my name is called. Record time again…maybe this getting up at the crack of dawn thing is worth it. A nice nurse talks about the weather while she clamps me into the machine. She apologizes when I grimace. I smile and tell her it’s no big deal. She sees the scar on my chest from my port and nods her acknowledgement that I have been through much worse pain than a 10 second squeeze. She takes the usual shots quickly.
She decides to take an extra shot and my blood pressure rises. She sets my hand on the machine instructing me not to let it slip, because there is a button which makes the clamp spin. Up until that moment the worst thing I could imagine was the machine breaking with me clamped into it. However, being locked in with it spinning is definitely a worse picture. She proceeded to tell me that it had happened before, which didn’t do much for my anxiety level. My hand was glued to the spot where she told me to put it as I wondered why in the world do they have a button that makes it spin? When would they EVER need to use that?
I am finished and get my robe tied back on so that the girls are not hanging out for the world to see. I make my way to the last of the waiting rooms, since I get to skip the ultra-sound, and MRI ones. So far I have been here a total of about 35 minutes. When I arrive to this room there are three of us there. Within the first 30 minutes there are probably 10. By the first hour the room is full. Computer Woman is typing away on her computer. Young Woman is chatting with her mom who is there in case the news is bad. Mom is the only one in street clothes….the rest of us are constantly adjusting our gowns to minimize the gaps. Impatient Woman sits to my left. She was there before I was, and is quite irritated that she was first one there and several people have been called before her. Then another woman comes in and sits down…she promptly falls sound asleep and begins to snore. Loudly. All the other women smile and giggle at Snoring Woman. Impatient Woman is not amused and tries to cough to wake her. Nothing works and so she gives up and lets Snoring Woman snore. Impatient Woman continues to look at her watch and ask every nurse that sticks their head in the room if it is her turn yet.
The atmosphere in the room is usually fairly tense, but usually there is a bit of small talk, some cell phone usage, and a lot of reading going on. Most of us here know the drill, we have been here before. We know that 3 to 5 hours is the norm. Some get coffee, or tea. There is a snack machine close by so there is movement and general agreement that this visit is long and inconvenient but necessary. And so it goes. Until a door in waiting room 2 opens and they call Impatient Woman’s name. She responds with “Oh shit.” And with those two words ringing in the air, the chatter stops and we all watch her get up and move back towards door number 2. It is what we all pray never happens to us…the in house radiologist sees something and orders more testing. Minutes later she is back, more subdued this time. No complaining, because now she dreads going to see the doctor. She is visibly pale and seems to be shaking. The tension level goes through the roof and every one avoids eye contact, lost in their own thoughts about why they are in this room in the first place.
More people are called back, more time passes. I think the thing that is the worst about it is that you never know what happens to the women that walk through those doors. You sit with them for a couple of hours, bonded by gaping gowns and shared humiliation, but you never get to see them after that. You don’t know and probably wouldn’t even recognize them with street clothes on. There is kind of an unspoken code of silence. You don’t ask questions about why they are here. The weather? Yes. The books you are reading? Fine. But don’t ask about cancer, or tests, or doctors. My name is called, and thank goodness is it not to go backwards. In the examining room I find that I was right…my blood pressure is sky high, which NEVER happens. The nurse smiles and says I am nervous, and that it is normal here for blood pressure to be high. I meet my new doctor since my other one retired last year. I tell my cancer story because she asks for it. She examines me and tells me that my pictures all came back clear. My heart begins to beat its regular rhythm again, as I put my gown in the laundry bag. Two and a half hours is the shortest time I have ever been here. I am good for another year, and while that is a relief for me, I can’t help but pray for Impatient Woman as I leave the building.