A Medical Vignette
There are four of us here, in the second waiting room of breast imaging. You can tell the breast imaging folks apart from the others getting bone density scans because we’re allowed to keep our shoes on and they’re not. Institutional light blue robes are the uniform, and they’re starchy and stiff with high neck openings. I’m both choking and feeling exposed.
There are a lot of images of butterflies on the walls here – stock photography and clip art filled posters with helpful tips about how to check your breasts. Trust me, Passive Aggressive Poster, I take care of my breasts. It’s why I’m here after my last mammogram had “something of note”.
They tell you to plan for two full hours here, and reminders of parking payment are everywhere. What they don’t tell you is that you spend almost all your time waiting, deep in your own dry-mouthed, stomach-churning, dizzy thoughts.
First, you wait in the outside waiting room which are decorated with hotel lobby style love seats. They are fabric and there is no way to cover them so all sorts of unwell strangers are sitting all over them, and they make strangers sit too close for comfort. I’m here to be screened for a breast abnormality. Probably nothing she said when she called the arrange an appointment, but we need to get you in right away.
Now, in the second waiting room, we’re lined up like dolls in fancy blue dresses with full skirts, waiting for them to use our legal first names and mispronounce our surnames to call us in. The person right beside me is wide-eyed, audibly swallowing, and removing all her jewellery piece by piece. I’m not clear if I’m supposed to. The person who directed me in here and gave me fussy instructions about the gowns didn’t mention jewellery. The woman beside her is flipping a checkout magazine angrily, and perfume samples keep flopping out, despite the butterflies reminding us it is a scent-free office.
The tech calls my name after what feels like eons, and directs me to an exam room down the hall. She doesn’t introduce herself to me and the light is wrong in the exam room. It’s like a sauna without the relaxation or a low key interrogation. I nervously comment about the low lights. It’s so the tech can better see the images on the ultrasound machine, she explains. Again with the stupid butterfly art on the walls. Fucking butterflies.
After all the instruction about how to close my front/back gowns, the tech has me take one off entirely and slip my arm out of the hole before propping up my side and positioning my arm to her liking. Her name is Lori and she is pleasant and surprisingly expressive but jumps right in without really giving me any ideas of what we’re looking for or what is going to happen. They keep the ultrasound gel warm.
I make small talk and watch her face closely as she moves the ultrasound wand around on my breast and stops – a lot – to take images. Move. Button. Beep. Move. Button. Beep. Move. Button. Beep.
Should I be worried that she’s taken 17 images already and we’ve only just touched on my son, after weather and the cost of parking? It feels like a lot. Is it a lot? I don’t know so I just ask.
She tells me I have a few small cysts along the side of my breast, and a very large cyst under my nipple. You can’t feel it? She asks. Nope. Should I? Is that bad I can’t? Isn’t cancer the silent killer? Please tell me more about my cyst. What happens next? I ask.
She tells me to wait and I do and I am alone again with my dry mouth and my dizzy feeling and my stomach churning. She comes back and lets me know the doctor doesn’t need to see me and I can go.
What does that mean? I wonder as I get changed and place my gowns in the “soiled linens” chute. I go slow leaving, hoping she’ll be waiting in the hall with some sort of instruction about what’s next. I have cysts, what do we do about them?
But she doesn’t come and so on my way out I tentatively ask the receptionist if I’m supposed to follow up with my doctor or… I let my voice trail off. She isn’t sure so goes to ask the tech, and I’m thinking surely I’m not the only patient to have gone through this why don’t you know the answer?
My body desperately wants to leave but I feel like an unclosed loop and she finally returns to tell me to contact my doctor. I say when and she says sometime next week.
But I don’t have cancer so I careen out of that room with a smile and head straight for the exit, phone out, already texting my support network the news. I’d not told many people about this, but enough that it takes a few minutes to send them all a note before I call my non-texting mom, a breast cancer survivor, to tell her.
At night I show my family the photo of the cyst I’d snapped off the ultrasound screen and I explain a cyst to my son, relieved almost to tears that I wasn’t explaining something else.