Friday, October 03, 2014

My First Mammogram: All Those People?!?

The nurse calls my name. She opens the door for me and my cane to get through unharmed. I apologize, as I am prone to do, for not being able to walk quickly. She assures me it's not an issue, and proceeds to walk much faster than I can. At one point, she turns a corner and I cannot see her.

She waits for me in front of a dressing room. It's one of several on either side of a short hallway. It's tiny and clean with a thinly-padded tan bench, a hook on the wall for my pocketbook, a thick navy blue curtain acting as a door, and a small painting of what surely must be New England in autumn. It's the sort of artwork you expect to find in a mid-range hotel room: a framed painting of a large tree partially shed of its red, yellow and green leaves. A few birds have gathered on the nearly-bare branches. You can just make out a vibrant, red barn in the distance, at the end of a quaint country road. It's the sort of vignette Thomas Kinkaide would paint and John Denver would sing about. It is oddly comforting. 

I am handed a variation on the usual hospital gown that ties in the back, hangs to your knees and leaves your backside exposed and chilly. This one is less mumu and more like the type of smocks they give you in elementary school on finger painting day. It's blue, hangs to my waist, and ties in the front. I take off my new shirt, the one with a skull and a set of steampunk-ish keys instead of crossbones. I fold it neatly and put it in my purse. My bra follows. 

"Did you put on deodorant before you left home today?"

I had not. Insomnia had kept me awake last night. The sleeplessness was partly due to my very heat-reactive multiple sclerosis raging at these infuriating summer temperatures so close to Halloween...and partly due to my fear of this little room, this surprisingly comfortable hospital blouse, this kind nurse with her clipboard and quirky earrings. And thus while wide awake and frightened last night, I availed myself of Google's bounty of information and read up on how to prepare for this particular procedure*: no deodorant, no powders, no lotions, no perfumes. 

It feels odd to sit in this tiny room in an art-class smock, wearing only the smock with slacks, underwear and combat boots. And no deodorant. That part feels weirdest of all. 

I am an old hand at the hurry-up-and-wait routine you encounter at most medical offices. I thusly came prepared: I have an ice-cold bottle of 7-Up, a hand fan to help reduce the effects of the heat's assault on my disease-riddled body, a pillbox with medications I may or may not need, and a book to read to pass the time. 

The book was purchased for this exact purpose: it's a small, narrow paperback perfectly suited to throw in a purse and take to the medical office du jour. And so I prop my cane against the wall, sit down on the meager bench and begin reading Carolyn Meyer's "Duchessina." It's based on the life of the medieval noblewoman Caterina de'Medici. I can hear a woman in a nearby stall change into her own light blue half-apron. I wonder if she is as uncomfortable being in public without deodorant as I am. 

My name is called, and the technician comes to get me. She is short and has a big smile. She is Asian, and immediately reminds me of a friend from my MS support group. I wonder if the tech is Vietnamese, too. And, like my friend, did her family come here after the war? I think about my friend as we walk past the rows of little dressing rooms. I am trying not to think of where we are headed.

And then we are there. I am shown a chair, told where to put my purse. The technician grabs my chart, and raises an eyebrow. 

"Do all these people in your family have a history of breast cancer?" she asks. 

Not at all of them. Some are only rumored to have had "female problems." Only one is dead from it: my mother. She was 44.

I am 40. And this was my first mammogram. 

By my age, my mother had already had the cancer for at least two years. She was 38 when she found the lump. Because of her severe phobia of needles, she waited until the lump was unavoidably and constantly painful to get it checked. That was over a year later.

The tech noticed the "pre-surgery" note on my chart. "Hysterectomy?" she asks. I nod. "I don't blame you," she adds after I told her that on top of my insane risk of breast, ovarian & uterine cancers, I have frequent ovarian cysts and extreme difficulties with my menstrual cycle.

"What kind of difficulties?" she inquired.

I have had three periods in the last ten weeks. I have developed frequent migraines when on my extremely frequent periods. I've also developed what my physician, The Viking, refers to as "pernicious anemia." And to make matters so much worse, I have a history of developing painful ovarian cysts. 

In other words: my reproductive system is all out of whack, and likely hates me with a rage close to blind vengeance. It is the Lady Tremaine to my Cinderella. 

Which led to my various doctors strongly suggesting a hysterectomy, and my strongly agreeing with their prognosis. "I don't blame you," says the tech. 

She explains the procedure and places a lead skirt around my waist, in an attempt to protect the organs I plan to remove after this scan. Irony, you are in rare form today...

We begin the scan. I am able to walk today, but I had not considered that I would need to balance myself without a cane for this. It's harder than it sounds. 

Out of curiosity, I ask what the procedure is like for wheelchair users. After all, this is only the first of many scans. I will not be able to walk through all of them.

The tech was very kind, and eagerly answered my questions. Basically: there's a room specifically for wheelchair users. She also shared that I would be "better off using the chair next time," given the twists and turns you must make, all whilst trying to keep yourself from toppling over. I needed help to move a few times, thanks up my uncooperative right side. 

The vast majority of MS patients have a "bad side," where the symptoms are prominent and for many, the only place symptoms exist at all. Mine is my right side. All my early signs are on that side. Eleven years ago, my disease went progressive and as a result, both sides have issues. However, my right side remains much worse. I refer to it as my "bad side" or my "MS profile." 

My MS Profile made itself known during the scan. I was shaky and worried I would fall. There were grab bars, but they weren't designed with multiple sclerosis in mind, and didn't make me feel very secure.

But the part that truly upset me? The scan didn't hurt on my right side. I barely felt anything outside of a little pressure. When it was time to change sides, I recall thinking this wasn't so bad.

Then we switched sides. I felt the pressure of the plates as they pressed down on my left breast. Then it started: a stinging, stabbing sensation, not what I'd call "painful," more "very unpleasant." 

This, in addition to my back, which began spasms in response to all the put-down-your-shoulders-face-the-ceiling-now-pivot-your-shoulder-hold-still-don't-breathe instructions via the tech. She sounds more like a yoga instructor than a mammography technician. Then my leg got in the act, and just plain wasn't having it. I feel ganged up on. I was offered a chance to "take a break," but declined. I just wanted this to be over. 

And then it was. The tech offers me an emery board and Chapstick, both emblazoned with the clinic's logo. A booby prize for your booby scan.

I am then directed to the same tiny dressing room. I take out my book and wait for them to tell me whether or not I will need another scan. Apparently, a "bad view" can sometimes occur. 

A few minutes later, the tech returns. The scans are good, and I can get dressed and leave. I sigh in relief.

I put on my bra and shirt. I brought my deodorant along in my pocketbook, and happily apply it. I hope I didn't cause a stink bomb for the tech, who quite literally had to help put my breasts onto the plate while I concentrated on not falling. I will most definitely bring my wheelchair next time.

Next time. This was only the first, but far from my last. 

It was then that I realized the significance of the lack of discomfort on my right side. My problem side. I didn't feel a thing. The implication of this lack of feeling was almost as frightening as the implication of "all these people." Almost. 

I go to the bathroom, trying to compose myself. I am struck by the sight of what appears to be a very angry duck positioned in front of the mirror: 

It's silly, but the absurdity of it somehow helps. 

My husband takes me out for lunch after the scan, and then we take advantage of a slow cooker sale at Freddy's. It was there that I noticed the second absurd wooden animal of the day, a bear who stepped on a gnome:

My husband, the Male Unit, is trying hard to take my mind off of today's business. His efforts are appreciated, although ineffective. I am still well aware of my situaton.

I had a scan yesterday, to check for the cancer that killed my mother. And during said scan, I realize the nerve damage on my right side is a lot worse--and higher up my body--than I have hitherto known. 

I awoke this morning with chest wall and breast pain, feeling the sort of discomfort one would expect would leave you bruised and battered...but only on my left side. 

And now I wait. 

And pray. 

My results came in the mail: no lumps, bumps or abnormalities. The report states that my breasts are "almost entirely fat." Yes, I apparently have obese boobs. I've never, ever been happier to be told I had a lot of fat in my entire life! 
Click to help fund mammograms for poor women (it's free and only takes a moment of your time):

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