It's no secret that I spend most of my time in the company of men and that I often prefer them to women on the whole. This is not to say that I don't have female friends. I've been blessed by a handful of remarkable women in my life--a couple of close friends, two sisters, my mother and a sister-in-law. I think I just find men to be easier on the soul.
A month ago I found a lump. Without embarrassing my handful of male viewers (you might want to skip to the next para--sorry), I'll simply say that for me this is nothing new. I have Fibrocystic tissue--which means that for a few days out of every month, being female is painful. But this one was really different and it concerned me a little.
I haven't seen a doctor since we lost our insurance five years ago and I wasn't at all sure what to do. So I waited until Gary and the boys were out of earshot and phoned my mom. I told her what I'd found. She waved it off as probably nothing, but she didn't wave off my lack of medical care. She gave me a phone number for to a program that covers the cost of women's health care on a sliding scale. As I've said before, I prefer to pay for my own health care, but when it starts creeping into the thousands just for routine medical, that puts it out of my reach. I didn't think we'd qualify as our income falls into middle class numbers wise, but to my surprise we did-with room to spare.
I mentioned to my mom that I'd never had a mammogram and asked her about it.
"It sucks," she said pragmatically. "It's no fun. It's uncomfortable. No one likes having them. But it only takes a few minutes, you get through it, and you get on with your life. You've given birth to four boys with no pain relief--you can do this, right?"
So I took a deep breath and made the phone call. It took them almost a month to get me in to see the doctor. What a very long wait that was. Meanwhile I managed to vacillate between scaring myself to death and calmly doing a fair amount of self-educating. I let Gary in on what was going on. He was fantastic (as always) and immediately set about educating himself and keeping me distracted. Further more, he went with me to the exam. Because he just rolls like that.
The nurse practitioners who saw me were fabulous. Friendly, joking, concerned, answering all my questions like they mattered, not rushing through anything. They teased Gary mercilessly, but didn't hesitate to answer his questions either. I complimented them on their beside manner at the end of the exam.
"Quite frankly, male doctors and my experiences with medical personnel who wouldn't listen are why I delivered my last two boys with a midwife," I told them. "And why I've not been anxious to return."
Big smiles again. "Which midwife did you use?" asked one of them.
I stated her name.
Both had delivered their children with her and one of them had worked for her. The air of camaraderie grew.
Afterward, holding my paperwork, the one in charge of the exam said, "I don't think you have a problem here. But now that we have your attention, lets get you scheduled for a mammogram to be absolutely sure and to give you a good baseline."
So we made the appointment. Yesterday, Gary went to Springfield with me and waited while I attended classes (he had a good time window shopping at the mall, ate some food that was bad for him, and read a few chapters in a book he's been working on. All in all, I think he had more fun than I did). We dashed over to the Cancer Center afterward and just made it in time for my appointment.
The waiting room was as far as Gary got. The nurse pointed me toward a hallway with yet another waiting room and a place to change into THE ROBE (you know--the one that doesn't really cover anything). I found myself sitting in a room full of women of all ages and sizes. And they were talking like they'd known one another forever. And it was about stuff that mattered.
Not where they got their hair done.
Not what make up they use.
Not where they bought their clothes.
Basically whatever undercurrent of competition that sometimes seems to run through women's relationships was non-existent in that room. Their conversations were about family, health, jokes about their own bodies, talk about those they've known who've had cancer or how many times they've had it, and the machines and what to expect.
I am not shy--quite the contrary, I'll talk your ear off. But left to my own devices in situations like this, I will pretty happily read a book, watch TV or look at magazines, but I didn't have the opportunity to do so this time. They quickly included me. Be sure and try the coffee, they said. It's flavored.
One woman, a farmer, asked me a couple of questions and found out it was my first time being there. She fussed gently at me for waiting so long. I learned later on that her sister had been treated for cancer about my age and was now refusing to go back for follow up exams because the treatment for it had been so awful. The woman talked about herself, about farming and cattle (a topic I have a working knowledge of) and cooking and so on. We talked about kids and husbands and both laughed about the changes in our marriages.
Across from me was a tiny little grandmother with a smooth, sweet face, except for a line of worry between her eyes. She'd been there the week before and they'd asked her to return and I could see her watch every person who came out of exam rooms, reading their faces and I had a pretty good idea of what she was thinking about. I watched her talk with the young woman beside her, ooh and ahh baby pictures, and tell stories about her own grandchildren (and great grandchildren). I think I was almost as relieved as she was when she came out of the exam room later, the line of worry gone. "It was nothing," she said. "They had a system crash just after I was here and they wanted to be sure my images weren't affected by it." She exhaled. "I had written my own death warrant." Hugging the young woman, a stranger a few minutes before, she hurried down the hall, practically dancing. The young woman looked after her and said softly, "She's ninety years old. I want to be like that."
By the time it was my turn for the mammogram, I was almost relaxed. My mom was right. It sucks. It's no fun. But it only took a few minutes. The radiologist was a bright young thing who chattered and asked questions throughout the exam. Whoever trained her did a good job of teaching her how to connect with patients and keep them comfortable. I was allowed to look at my own images and she explained what I was looking at.
This was very different than my last experiences with a doctor's office several years ago when I tried to peer at an X-ray of my own foot and had it snatched away by a nurse/radiologist who snapped at me that only a doctor could tell me what was in it. When I commented that it was of my own foot, she informed me that it was the property of the doctor's office and that I didn't have a right to look at it. I was angry (at her rudeness), but not surprised, because I'd run across this over and over in situations like this.
The doctor was a woman as well; she was was warm and friendly and open about all the details of what she was doing. She did an ultrasound to be sure they weren't missing anything and stated that she was fairly sure that it was the result of bruising (kind of like scar tissue), as it turns out. And I'm fairly sure I know what caused it. Imagine, if you will, me and a short handled shovel in the garden and not watching what I'm doing. Nuff said?
I walked through the waiting room and everyone turned toward me. I smiled and stated that everything was fine. They beamed back, exhaling for me. In two hours, these women had all bonded over their mutual worries and were able to be relieved for the ones who walked out fine. As left, I saw two more women enter, clutching their robes and looking fearful. I smiled at them, they smiled back uncertainly. "Try the coffee," I told them."It's flavored."
My blogging buddy Debby has been through the real thing, so I've been hesitant to say much about my little adventure. In my life, this was just a small scare, a niggling worry, the thing that kind of shadowed me for a few weeks and is now gone. So I don't want to pretend to have any insights that I don't or claim any inside understanding of what it is like to actually have breast cancer.
But I have to say that it gave me a lot to think about during those weeks, a real reality check. When it occurred to me that I am not immune to the worst possible things and that there is no reason for them not to happen to me, it put me in a strange place and gave me an interesting perspective on thankfulness. Not thankfulness that I'm fine. Being fine is a very transient, changeable thing. And not that God has everything under control (He does though). But being thankful that I am okay today, that everyone in my house is okay today. And that we have a home today and that I am well loved--today.
And, too, I'm also thankful for the sisterhood of women and their ability to bond in the strangest places, at the strangest times, over things that men--no matter how much they love us--just aren't going to understand.