All doubt, despair, and fear become insignificant
once the intention of life becomes LOVE.
We who are cancer survivors have different kinds of anniversaries. We speak in code to one another, inquiring about health, sharing the latest—especially when it is good news—because we know the wolf is always at the door. We are in a club none of us chose to join, but we cherish our fellow members.
On January 23rd, a friend in my club asked how I’m doing. He asked in the nuanced way we ask. And when I inquired about him, he quietly told me he’d had his four-year check up the week before, and, “All is well.”
My check up, a diagnostic mammogram, was scheduled for the following week, Tuesday, January 26th. Last year, I had a recurrence of cancer after twelve years and had the first of two lumpectomy surgeries on January 28th. While anticipating a mammogram is always anxiety provoking, this year I was terrified.
The morning of the 26th, I spent time reading my spiritual material, reflecting, writing in my journal, and praying. I prayed all would be well. But I was afraid. I was afraid of the outcome, and I was afraid of the process.
The Evanston Breast Health Center is not a happy place. Working in health care can be stressful—especially dealing with exceedingly anxious, terrified patients who fear a negative outcome, but also dread the procedure.
In addition to being a scary harbinger of possibly devastating news, the mammogram machine is a known instrument of torture. According to unofficial polls, breast size doesn’t matter. Everyone experiences extreme discomfort to excruciating pain—mashed against unforgiving metal and glass, body twisted into unnatural positions, intimate flesh pulled, pushed, and, finally, crushed.
“Take a breath. Hold it. Don’t breathe!”
Over the years I’ve had some good technicians and some not so good. Not mean, just remote or impatient. Being told, “relax!” in a stern tone is definitely not helpful.
I’ve often remarked on the irony of not being allowed to wear deodorant on the very day I need it the most!
I always show up for my mammogram a rigid bundle of nerves. I tuck myself in and avoid any unnecessary interactions and eye contact. I put up my shield and get in and get out as quickly as possible.
The morning of the 26th I decided to do it differently. I set an intention to bring comfort and peace to all the worn and weary and worried women in the breast center—patients and staff alike—and to consciously spread love throughout the hospital. I know when I focus on comforting others I always think less about myself. Working was the only thing that kept me sane when I went through radiation therapy in 2002.
I had just entered the hospital when I came upon a tall, elderly man—clearly in pain—limping along the corridor. As I passed him I turned, smiled and said “Good Morning.” His face lit up with a smile. “Good morning, to you.”
Once in the breast center, I was the only one in the waiting room, so I smiled at the three receptionists behind the desk. No one smiled back. They were very business-like. Hard job, I reminded myself. I filled out a form and only had to wait a few minutes before I was called.
A small, solemn woman led me to examination room 4, where the machine waited. She gave me a pink gown.
“Open in the front,” she said, and left the room.
After putting on the gown, I walked to the machine. I always take comfort in the inspection date on the mammogram machines at Evanston Hospital. March 11—my mother’s birthday. Last year, the date let me down. But I found it again, and prayed it was a good sign.
A knock on the door and another woman entered—my technician, Tatyana. She read though my file.
“You’ve been through a lot,” she said, quietly. She had an accent.
Already, it felt different. No one had ever acknowledged that before. She told me she would be taking two shots on each side, four films altogether. Then she examined me.
“So many scars,” she said, softly. Shaking her head.
Before a mammogram, scars are marked with tape embedded with thin wire or tiny ball bearings so they don’t show up as something suspicious on the films. She put five pieces of tape on me.
Tatyana was efficient, but gentle. She kept asking how I felt, if I was okay. I felt human, whole—not just manipulated flesh. Halfway through, I looked at her.
“Thank you for being so kind,” I said. My voice cracked and my eyes filled with tears.
Tatyana looked surprised, nodded and smiled. When she was finished taking the last shots, she gestured to a chair.
“Please sit. I’m showing these to the radiologist. It might take a while.”
I sat and waited. Not playing with my phone, just breathing and trying to feel hopeful. I’d waited about ten minutes when the door opened. I stood up. Tatyana was in the doorway, smiling at me.
“Everything is good. You can come back in a year.” Tatyana held her arms out, inviting me for a hug. No one at the center had ever offered me a hug. I stepped into her arms and we hugged for a long moment.
“Thank you,” I said.
Walking out through the waiting room, I grinned and gave the three receptionists the thumbs up.
“Tatyana is a lovely woman!” I said.
This time they all smiled back.
It was only in the car, driving home, that the total experience of relief hit me. The intensity of my gratitude took me by surprise. I cried all the way home.
I will never know for sure if setting my intention that morning really played a part in the outcome of my day, but I believe it did—and that’s enough for me. Maybe, by taking down my shield, I allowed Tatyana to feel comfortable letting hers down. What I do know is I will make it my practice moving forward.
This past Thursday, I had my yearly appointment with my oncologist, Dr. Yao, whose office is at the Kellogg Cancer Center. Once again, I set my intentions. After examining me and studying the mammogram results Dr. Yao made the final call on outcome—All is well!
After note: During my appointment, Dr. Yao asked me to participate in a research study of women who have had contralateral breast cancer (CBC). The study is looking for specific DNA changes or other variables associated with CBC. Although the development of CBC is very low, many women choose to have invasive treatment to prevent it from happening. Learning more about who is at higher risk of developing CBC will help physicians better advise and guide patients with treatment decision in the future. I readily agreed.