My sister has been dead for three months and as many of you know, she died from Metastatic Breast cancer that metastasized to her bones. In the end, her skull got too crowded with disease and a bleed and ended up as a stroke. At the moment I am focused on my existing Osteopenia and Osteoporosis along with my mammogram. I have been told that I am now considered “high risk” for breast cancer which I suppose is true however, without knowing if my sister’s cancer was of the genetic sort, I am not sure. I’m working on finding that out if I can. If I can’t, I suppose I can be tested myself for the BRCA1 or 2 gene.
So, I discussed the idea of getting a 3D mammogram with the midwife I saw for my annual GYN exam last week. She didn’t seem to have an opinion so I decided on my own that it seemed a more extensive screening to do, despite being exposed to more radiation, which always makes me cringe.
I drove to Chapel Hill to UNC Cancer hospital this morning but as I arrived at the parking deck it all began to hit me. This is where I had come with my sister several times and I was about to relive a lot of it. When I walked into the lobby, the déjà vu began. The masked women, the wheelchairs, the wigs, the no eyebrows or lashes, the pink ribbon pins, the whole scene. First you wait on a line and get a number, sort of like at the butcher. Then your number comes up on a screen and you go to registration. UNC is a well oiled machine and they care deeply about their patients/customers to the extent that a cart is rolling around offering coffee, tea, or hot chocolate as if you were on a transcontinental flight. Green tea is a common choice because, oh yeah, we heard that fights cancer. Sure. Too little too late perhaps?
Anyway, I find myself trying to act super healthy, almost super young and vibrant, walking at a rapid pace, responding quickly, etc maybe to show that I am not one of the fallen warriors? Just why do I do this? None of this is necessary. Who am I kidding? But, when they seat me in the next waiting room in the very chair I sat in five years ago, I am overcome with emotion. This was the chair that I sat in when Alice’s boyfriend yelled at me in front of the entire waiting room of people because as he said, “I had not greeted him with a proper hello!” I remember how stunned I was as my sister was sitting in the mammogram waiting room a complete wreck at the time and because she needed water, I’d come out to get it, Never did I expect to be met with this maniacal demand. I recall yelling back at him saying that he was out of line and should stop making a scene. It was at that moment that he looked me in the eye and said, “You are not going to win this contest, so you’d just better get used to it.” Still flummoxed, I asked “What contest? I didn’t know there was a contest. I thought you were her boyfriend and I was her sister and we were here to help her with her recent cancer diagnosis.” He scowled at me and I went in with Alice’s water at which time she said, “What is wrong? You are bright red.” “Oh nothing,” I replied. “That’s not true. Did you just have a fight with Pete?” I told her he’d yelled at me for not saying hello the way her preferred when I’d rushed in wanting to be at her side and she said that she just wanted peace and for everyone to get along which only made me feel guilty and confused.
And so back to the present, the tech came to get me and brought me into the exact room I’d waited with my sister and the rest of the hairless, scared-to-death silent women, that day five years back. And when she pointed me to one of the ten lockers to place my clothes in, it all started to be too surreal. I recalled saying to Alice, “don’t worry about which locker it is. It is the last one on the right.” Today, I was assigned the last locker on the right. I put the gown on with the opening in the front as instructed, but there was no way to tie it so I simply held it closed till she brought me into the radiation room. I remembered Alice saying, “How the hell do you tie this gown anyway?” Waiting to be called in I noticed that the TV was still on the same Food Network cooking show. I wondered then, why women who were so nauseated with fear or chemo were subjected to this particular TV genre. Now, years later, I still wondered.
The tech then asked me why I was getting a 3D. I said that my sister had died from metastatic breast cancer and I was now considered high risk. “Oh how long ago did she die?” she asked. I was fixated on the crocheted flowers bobby pinned to her hair and her quirkiness but this question jarred me. “She JUST died” I said. “It was only a couple months ago” I said as I started to fill with tears. “I sat with her in this very room when she was having her follow up mammogram five years ago,” I said in my now quivering voice. “Tell me how I find out if she had genetic type cancer or not” I asked. She was getting nervous now and said, “Now honey, you just sit tight here and I will go find out and come back with that information.” It was not the best idea to leave me in there alone in panic mode in the midst of a Star Wars set. I reached my right hand down and searched for Alice’s hand to hold onto. The kind, skinny, strong hand of hers. I tried on the left first and squeezed the air wondering if it was her hand. Then I tried on the right. Then I extended both hands, squeezed the air in front of me and began to cry silently asking Alice to please for God’s sakes hold my hand! I wanted to bolt for the door, run and maybe never stop. In the end, I realized that if in fact I am following in my sister’s footsteps, it would not make a difference if I ran forever and didn’t look back.
The tech came back in and brought me to the dreaded, monstrous machine. “Remove the gown from your right shoulder” she commanded. And then, the torture began. My breast on the shelf, holding my breath, chin this way, no that way, squeeze, slam, pinch, compress, ouch, ouch, ouch, you have got to be frickin kidding me. “You can breathe” she says. Breathe? Who in the world could breathe? “Wait let me make sure I get not only your breast but your chest muscle too because of your situation we want to get everything we can. I will do each breast on each side and front in 3D and then I will do each direction the same in 2D, just in case. And you are only being exposed to slightly more radiation than the 2D.” “You can breathe now on this one.” “I am not breathing,” I say, “I am in far too much damned pain to breathe,” Oh good God I am thinking. Surely I will not survive this screaming pain and ultra rads. I did for now.
“If they see anything, they will call you to let you know. If they don’t they will mail you a letter telling you everything is okay.” I am wondering how one survives the waiting for the letter while you are waiting for the fateful phone call. But, I leave, go to the end locker, get my clothes, sit on the bench in the small changing room, cry silently, get dressed, walk out and across the bridge to the parking shelves. It is a warm, sunny spring day. In my mind, I hold my sister’s hand swinging my hand back and forth like we used to do when we were little girls. Once in my car, I am safe to talk to her with no one around. “Thanks for coming with me dear sister. Thanks.”