This morning I went to St Marks for my yearly mammogram and ultrasound. This is the official cancer follow up, and it has always struck me as odd that it’s also the official non-cancer follow up (weird that it would be exactly the same whether you’ve had cancer or not, right?). Anyway, I don’t have a good record on this test at all. My first two mammograms showed the original cancer. Then I had one clear one the next year, and then the next one showed this second cancer. So I watched myself spin more and more unhappily as I taxied through the rainy Auckland streets this morning.
I was not the only anxious one. The women in the waiting room, in our grey (Large) or brown (Medium) gowns mostly looked at the ground. One woman leaned heavily on the man next to her, eyes closed, face pained. Those of us alone paged through the women’s magazines on the coffee table, not pausing long enough to read the pages. The cheerful mammogram technician had given me a breezy “Right with you, Love,” before disappearing into her room, so I was surprised when she didn’t get back to me for nearly a quarter of an hour. “So sorry to leave you waiting so long,” she apologised when she led me in. “It took me longer than I expected to make sense of your file.”
“Yep, it’s pretty thick,” I told her.
“You have had a shit year!” she said. “How exhausting!”
It is amazing how lovely it is when a medical person recognises how hard it is to be sick. “I’m hoping this next one will be better,” I told her. “Let’s see if we can get a clean bill of health this time.”
She nodded encouragingly. She did the squishy thing and images of my breast appeared on the screens in front of her. Grey with stripes. Were the stripes normal? She let out a sigh. Was she seeing something bad? She sighed again. Was she just a sigher? Was it really bad?
“Carmen will have a look at these and let you know what she sees,” she told me when I was done. “Have a seat back in the waiting room.”
I sat. The time moved astonishingly slowly. 38 minutes since I had arrived. The mammogram technician walked by several time, her eyes firmly on the ground as she passed. Doctors kept going into the room near me and conferring in hush tones. Were these bad signs? I felt like a medieval farmer, looking to every random sign to see whether this year would be feast or famine.
Finally Carmen arrived. She is the one who first diagnosed the first cancer, and she is the one who knew the second cancer was cancer before the labs picked it up. She is very very careful and I trust her. She is also kind and gentle and treats me like a person. “What a year you’ve had!” she said. Yep. What a year.
She got the whole timeline clear in her notes (“Three surgeries? Ah—four!”) and then led me to the table. “The mammogram looks ok, but it’s really the ultrasound that will be of use in your case,” she told me. And on with the cold jelly in the darkened room as she passed the wand over and over and over my breasts, stopping often to take a picture.
She focused on the same spot for a while and my heart rate soared. “Trouble there?” I finally croaked out. “No. No trouble anywhere so far,” she told me. “But I want to be so careful.”
And careful she was. Slowly, slowly, telling me a section was clear after going over and over it. “Nothing suspicious. Nothing suspicious. Nothing suspicious.” It turns out those are my two favourite words—and I heard them again and again.
Scan done, she sent me back to the waiting room. She wanted one more set of eyes on the mammogram before I flew back to Wellington. I waited across from a woman, maybe 20 years old than me, who was quietly crying in her brown gown. “Hard place to be, eh?” I asked her. She nodded and her eyes shifted back to her magazine. The minutes ticked by. Finally Carmen came out, a broad smile on her beautiful face. “All clear!” she said. “See you next year!”
I turned to my counterpart on the other couch, almost weeping with relief. “I hope you get the all clear too,” I said.
“I’ve already had cancer,” she said. “Out of the blue. You never see this coming. There are no symptoms, it doesn’t hurt. It’s just a routine exam until it isn’t.”
“Yep,” I agreed. “I’ve had it twice.” Her eyes got wider. “But I don’t have it now!” I smiled at her. “I hope in 20 or 30 minutes you know that this was just a routine exam, and that you get the all clear too.”
She smiled. “I hope so too. And then it’s another year?”
“And then it’s another year.”
365 more dawns until my next scan.
This is the best bill of health I’ve had in nearly two years—no cancer in my breast, no circulating tumour cells. Leaving the clinic, I was almost limp with relief. I still haven’t quite taken it in. There are still many decisions to be made, but I have had so much news in the last three weeks and none of it has been bad. I will meditate on that tomorrow at dawn and begin to wonder about changing the name of this blog to 35000 dawns…
PS Picture today is Naomi and me in Fiji…