November 24, 2008
My life is changin’ in so many ways,
I don’t know who to trust anymore.
There’s a shadow runnin’ through my days
Like a beggar goin’ from door to door.
— Neil Young, b. 1945
Denial — On Wednesday, November 12, I set out at 9:10 for a 9:20 appointment that I thought was going to take a half hour at the most. Tristán Associates is the biggest, most well-respected diagnostic radiology practice in the area. They have seven offices, and one of them is about a mile from my house, across the street from the supermarket I visit about four times a week. So I popped over there that morning for my annual mammogram with the same seriousness I would take if I were getting my brows waxed or picking up the dry cleaning.
The first set of pictures was routine. The young woman who did the test made small talk about the prospect of preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner for assorted guests and trying to please everyone. We both knew the Friends episode about that and we laughed about it. During the wait for the radiologist to read the films I took to wondering why the building is on Old Post Road, a thoroughfare created when this office complex was created. Was there once a military post here (there is a historical marker a mile or two east noting the spot where a famous kidnapping by Indians took place)? Did the planners find the remnants of an old post and rail fence left from the property’s days (not so long ago) as a farm?
The second set of pictures didn’t faze me either. That’s happened before. It was the third, and then the fourth, at different levels of magnification and from different angles and on just one side, that gave me pause. At length I was told to dress and wait in a small room for the radiologist. I’d been there two hours.
I was there about an hour more. The study revealed that I have what appear to be calcifications in one area of the left breast. They look like snowflakes. They were there before, but now there are more of them, and they are clustering. They look like shadows, not unlike the shadows of the trees in Lynn’s pastel rendering of the path to the playground. They best be studied closely. I was given an array of pamphlets, all showing smiling women who’ve evidently gotten good news from their extensive imaging, and an appointment for Friday the 21st for a stereotactic core needle biopsy. “Get the results. Get on with your life,” was printed above the date and time.
Anger — I do not have time for this, you know. I do not have time for surgery, for radiation. I can’t clear six solid weeks for daily trips to the clinic, two or three hours total counting travel and waiting for a few minutes each time of zapping with a ray gun that homes in on a tattoo that’s been placed on your skin, not a striking tiger or a Sanskrit prayer such as Angelina Jolie has but an X, an X you’ll have forever that indicates some part of you has been cancelled. I have a lot of living to do, and there is not room in my life for journeys and battles and all the other clichés applied to people with cancer. It is not my fault that I’m a DES daughter who started my periods when I was 11 and didn’t get pregnant until I was 38. Whatever this is I am probably not going to die from it, but it will take up time and energy that will not be available for writing and gallivanting.
Bargaining — Okay, so for this whole week and a half I’ll eat right (high fiber, low fat, fresh fruit, lean meat, lots of green stuff and maybe even some tofu, because if you eat tofu you are being so righteous) and I’ll exercise and I’ll breathe and meditate and imagine my calcifications as snowflakes surrounded by a golden light that melts them with a gentle heat and sends them, rendered harmless, back into the energy of the universe. Oh, oh, and I’ll call the people I’ve been meaning to call, and I’ll tell the people I love that I love them and I’ll thank them for being a part of my life. And I’ll start clearing the clutter from all the corners of my life, the magazine articles I’m not going to read and the coupons I’m not going to redeem, and I’ll get all my pictures into albums and finish the cross-stitch quilt I started for Lynn before she was born. And I’ll volunteer down at the soup kitchen too! In other words, if I do all the things I’m supposed to be doing anyway, this thing, this shadow, will go away.
Depression — I looked at Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. Slipping back into denial (it’s common to move back and forth through these stages), I borrowed it from the library because I’m certainly not going to need it long enough to justify buying it. (People who know me know that I need very little justification to buy almost any book.) It’s 600 pages of stuff you didn’t know there was to know about breast health. The night before the procedure I went to pieces because I cooked up a mess of onions for French onion soup (we got lots of onions in our next-to-last vegetable box for the season) and then got distracted and forgot about them until they were a charred and hopeless mess. I haven’t told a lot of people what’s going on because to do so seems so needy, manipulative even. The people I have told have been overwhelmingly supportive, and it should cheer me to know how many people care about me so deeply. But I feel guilty for engaging their concern and their fear if this turns out to be nothing, and fearful of being too needy and wearing them out if it turns out to be, well, something else.
Acceptance — I wasn’t quite there yet last night. The procedure went well, mostly discomfort from having to lie still for an hour, face down and enjoined not to move lest I disrupt the exacting positioning that took so long to achieve. No real pain, until the anesthetic wore off. Because the procedure was done on a Friday, the results could not be reported until today. I spent the weekend bouncing like a pinball among Anger, Bargaining, and Depression. And some Denial too. I went grocery shopping on Saturday and remembered only as I heaved the turkey I wanted out of the pile and into my cart that I had a deep puncture wound that was very tender and I was suddenly very tired.
On Saturday the mail brought a thick envelope from the Vermont Studio Center, an artists’ colony to which I had applied for a spot. They’ve offered me a residency for this time next year. I looked at the envelope a long time before I opened it. It was like I couldn’t imagine what it was for. I had forgotten that there was a dimension to my life and my personality that is not A Woman Who Waits for Bad News. I had forgotten that I am a fiction writer.
Resolution — I was told the pathology report would be available after 4:30. I didn’t sleep well and was up before five. I drank coffee and stared at a candle flame and counted my blessings. The counting part takes a fair amount of time, and the flame dances up from a holder a friend gave me. “Someone Special,” it’s inscribed, and that’s supposed to refer to me, but this morning it referred to the one who gave it and all the others who have cared for me during this siege.
At 3:30 I was getting ready to get ready to go over to the radiology place when the oncology nurse called. “Your results are here early and I thought I’d try to save you a trip over,” she said. And I knew. She wouldn’t be trying to save me a trip if what she had to say was complicated.
The shadows, the bits like snowflakes, are benign calcifications. Come back in six months for another mammogram.
So it’s over. Two weeks almost of worrying and wondering. Emily Dickinson wrote about the slant of light this time of year. When it comes, the Landscape listens — Shadows — hold their breath. I held my breath for two weeks. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help it. I lost my concentration and stopped writing. I put everything in my life on hold. Now I can exhale, and get on with my life. This period of turmoil has not been without its gifts. I have a keener awareness of the abundance that is mine in the number and quality of my friends and the resources that I can draw on. All that eating of low fat and high fiber and exercising and keeping in touch are good even if you’re not in crisis. I can’t say that I won’t backslide and start neglecting those things again, especially the low fat part. I mean, really, it’s Thanksgiving.
If you are reading this, you are part of my abundance. Thank you for so much, so often.
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