When a routine breast checkup goes off course

By Alisa Schindler,

Imagine being on a train for hours passing field after field, nothing but prairie. Then suddenly a clown in oversized shoes and big red nose appears out of nowhere, juggling. Lulled by the familiar landscape, this new information takes a moment to process, but by then the train has moved on and you wonder if you imagined it.

Driving home from the radiologist was like that. Just a mark on a scan, he says. Probably nothing. But let’s just put any concern to rest and check it out.

My husband is very solicitous when I get home. He is usually nice, or at least reasonably nice, but now he is more so — I’ll drive the kids to school so you don’t have to go out in the cold. Just order that new chair you want. Let’s hug. A lot. And that is weird. He is being sensitive, which I appreciate, but still makes me feel off center. I am sure it is pretty much how he is feeling, too. Off center. The train has revealed something unexpected and jolted us awake.

I was just minding my own business getting on with a routine checkup that I didn’t give much thought to because I never do. I joked with the assistant who led me to the dressing room where I changed out of my clothes and into a smock that opens at the front. I chatted with the technician even as the wand dipped in warm goo pressed against my breast. I laughed with the receptionist as I checked out, leaving them all with a smile while mine wavered.

But I knew there was something.

The tech spent just a few moments too long on one area. She had been consistently moving the baton up and over, inching around my breast, chatting the whole time about “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” but then both the instrument and her mouth paused.

Clickity clack, clickity clack tapped her fingers on the keyboard, the wheels already in motion. “I miss Lisa Vanderpump,” she said, continuing where she left off, and instead of asking if something was wrong, I said, “Me too. She’s my favorite.” I knew I would have to wait for the doctor, so why interpret her hedged remarks into something that probably was nothing.

I got the call three mornings later. I hadn’t obsessed about it over the weekend. In fact, I pushed it down, kept it to myself and almost forgot that pregnant pause had even happened. But after the phone call, there was no pretending, at least not with my husband.

So I schedule the biopsy, still sure it is nothing. My husband asks what he can do and I roll my eyes and tell him to go back to his makeshift pandemic home office while I go back to making macaroni and cheese for one of my boy’s lunches and (kind of) quietly grumbling about the Fruity Pebbles cereal scattered across the floor. Decades ago, I casually downed bowl after bowl while watching “Beverly Hills 90210,” accepting without hesitation the rainbow of riches bestowed on me as my due.

Those days are not these days. My brain has rewired me into someone who has lived 50 years. And while there are no accurate words to express the awesome beauty and adventure of mothering my three boys, amazingly now 13, 16 and 18, I also have come to understand that life includes death and suffering. I know worlds of pain can live in quiet. I know the agony behind a smile. My father died after a long and painful illness, my father-in-law a mere two months after diagnosis. Friends who never made it to the quirks of middle age. All here, then gone.

Is this my final stop?

I pooh-pooh the dark thought but the melancholy drifts in and out, a fog of curious mystery that hasn’t quite revealed itself. This could be that moment everything changes. (I know it’s not. Of course, it’s not.) We see it in movies all the time, the minutes before the earthquake, a kidnapping, a sudden death. Our beloved characters hustling and bustling, blissfully ignorant to the horror that awaits. We squirm and we cry because we know it is not just the movies. Life lies in wait for all of us.

I channel my kids’ old nursery school mantra — “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

I believe those words. I have lived by those words. Yet, I am momentarily stuck in the quiet of the pause, I feel both spectator and spectacle with nothing to do but enjoy a bowl of Fruity Pebbles on the couch next to my husband as we binge “Better Call Saul,” our latest pandemic distraction as the train rushes on to wherever it is going.

Pretend nothing is happening

The first biopsy appointment available is Monday, which happens to be my middle son’s birthday. He would be in school but I instinctively recoil at having the two connected. “What’s the second appointment?” I ask and quickly snap up Tuesday morning. A week away. A week to ignore the juggling clown, to pretend that nothing is happening.

And I basically do a good job of it.

I have my boys for distraction, meaning lots of laundry and cooking food that they will complain about and then ask for seconds, a dog that needs walking and cookies that won’t bake themselves. My husband is still being too nice — even nicer. It’s getting on my nerves.

“I’m fine,” I snap and realize how not fine it sounds. I haven’t told my family and closest friends who I speak with every day. I want to share but the words won’t come out of my mouth. Somehow, putting it into the universe makes it real. Also, it would freak my mom out.

My husband accompanies me to my appointment for support, which is funny since he gets woozy at the sight of blood, the mention of needles. But still, he is a comfort and I am lucky to have him as my long-term traveling companion. The procedure is what it is. I close my eyes and pretend I’m not there. I am at my son’s birthday the day before. The sun shines and we all play basketball on our driveway, laughing at how I bad I am. We eat cake.

“Finished,” the doctor says, and I am back on a medical slab covered in crinkly paper with my breast exposed. The wait for results begins.

The not-knowing is unnerving, but strangely I am settled in for the ride, stuck between train stations, my brain preparing for whatever comes next. “Bring on the clown,” it says, but I much prefer the unending green pastures. “We get what we get,” it says, but I want what I want.

Three days later, I call the doctor for my results. They had said possibly today or Monday but I can’t wait another minute. The receptionist asks if she can put me on hold and even though my head has filled with helium and my throat narrowed to a straw, my words sound normal, casual, easy breezy. “Yes, of course.”

I hold the line and my breath as my blood pressure spikes and plummets simultaneously, anxiety giving way to the kind of weakness that makes me want to slide boneless to the floor like a flattened cartoon character.

Finally. Finally. The doctor gets on the line. “It’s benign,” she says and that’s all I hear because relief drowns out the rest.

I’m fine. Of course I am. I knew it. And yet, the pulse of that pause lingers and I wonder whether the feeling will follow me, lurking in the background to show up the next time. How many reprieves do we get in a lifetime? And how many other women just like me won’t get this one?

The answer is unsettling.

My husband hugs me, then distracts my unease with ice cream. For now, life — beautiful and boring life — keeps rolling on.

Read more

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