Nobody ever bothers to answer the landline in our house. There’s really no reason to pick up the antiquated appliance, because every time it rings, it is either an unwelcome telemarketer (about 90 percent of incoming buzzes), a prerecorded message from one of our three kids’ schools, or an appointment reminder from a doctor’s office.
So when the phone jingled cheerfully this past week, I didn’t flinch in the slightest, instead continuing to enjoy lunch with my 5-year-old daughter. In fact, I’d completely tuned out the voice I assumed was imparting irrelevant details about refinancing deals available amid historic low interest rates or some amazing opportunity to consolidate credit card debt. But then I heard the single phrase capable of striking terror in the hearts (and breasts) of women over 40: The radiologist has reviewed your mammogram and would like you to come back for further testing.
I leaped up from the table like a Rio-bound sprinter. “Hello? Hello? I’m here!” I yelped, as the caller proceeded to repeat the message, adding that “further X-rays and a possible ultrasound” were needed.
In a split second, my life simultaneously stood still and flashed in its entirety before me. At 46, I had glided through five previous mammograms without incident, always receiving the standardized thumbs-up approval letter in the mail following the procedure. Just last week, I departed the radiology office without a second thought, never imagining the phone call that would in turn spark the next 45 thoughts:
1. I think I’m going to throw up.
2. I am definitely going to throw up.
3. Yes, of course I can hold for the scheduling department. How will I survive the next two or three weeks that I undoubtedly will have to wait for a follow-up appointment?
4. I can’t believe there is an opening tomorrow.
5. I am so freaking grateful they can fit me in tomorrow.
6. Are they getting me in tomorrow because they can see something so grave that it merits immediate attention?
7. I can’t believe I have to wait until tomorrow to find out if I have breast cancer.
8. I need to call my husband. He is always so much more rational and optimistic about medical issues than I am. His mind doesn’t immediately vault to the worst case scenario like mine does.
9. Why is he so quiet? Why is he not immediately telling me everything will be fine? I know he’s recalling that episode of Parenthood, when Kristina Braverman finds out she has breast cancer. My strong, steady husband wept like a baby alongside Kristina’s TV husband Adam through that entire storyline. I bet he’s crying right now.
10. I wonder if I should do an online search for mammogram call backs.
11. Bad idea. How many times have I unnecessarily freaked myself out with an impromptu Web M.D. pursuit?
12. Don’t do it. Do NOT type “Mammogram call back” into that Google search bar.
13. OMG, there’s sooooo much information on breast cancer. But there are other possibilities, too. Maybe I just have a benign cyst. Or a hard-to-read image due to breast density.
14. What, exactly, is breast density?
15. What if I have breast cancer?
16. I shouldn’t stress because the likelihood of a diagnostic call-back mammogram increases over the years of annual screenings. But the chances of abnormal findings being indicative of breast cancer will naturally increase, too. So I should be stressed.
17. Many women summoned for a second mammogram have a ‘false positive.’ Women get called back all the time for things that can be a totally normal or a benign finding, so don’t panic.
18. Don’t panic? Are you friggin’ kidding me? How do I not panic?
19. Of women who are called back after a mammogram, 20 percent will have cancer.
20. Okay, so 80 percent won’t have cancer. That’s good news. Unless, of course, I’m one of the 20 percent.
21. I bet I’m one of the 20 percent.
22. I wonder if chemo will make my hair fall out.
23. Of course my hair will fall out. Will my daughter be too freaked out to shop for pretty scarves with me, or will we be able to parlay breast cancer into just another frivolous and fun shopping spree?
24. My little girl was so frightened when her favorite Sunday school teacher began wearing head pieces after her first round of chemo last year. She didn’t understand what was happening. Or maybe, inherently, she did.
25. I never told my daughter that her teacher passed away last month, leaving behind four children.
26. I don’t have any family history of breast cancer. Surely this must be a mistake. Could it really just be a glitch in the image? Why didn’t the lady taking the X-rays realize there was a problem with the image? It can’t be something as simple as the image. Please God, let it just be something with the image.
27. Should I try to cancel that new office chair I just ordered online? Maybe I won’t be around very long to sit in it.
28. Didn’t I read somewhere that breastfeeding for more than a year reduces the risk of developing breast cancer? I nursed three babies for a collective 45 months. Surely that merits a “pass” in the cancer department.
29. Should I keep planning that vacation to Hawaii we have slated for next summer?
30. Yes, I definitely should plan it, even if the family goes without me. I might not be able to travel after chemo.
31. I might not be here next summer. Maybe they will scatter my ashes amid that waterfall we all gushed over in the travel brochure.
32. I have been vigilant about having annual mammograms, so anything that has cultivated inside my boobs has done so within the past 12 months. Which isn’t very long in cancer terms, is it? I should be ok. Chemo should do the trick.
33. I wonder if the sweet teacher from church had regular mammograms.
34. I wonder if she breastfed.
35. Didn’t the major medical agencies change the guidelines a few years back on their recommendation for the frequency of mammograms because of this very scenario ¬— because of the additional tests and the ANXIETY produced from simple image ambiguity? There must have been a lot of unnecessary call-backs to reverse such a long-standing recommendation. I’m probably just one of those unwarranted summons. Everything will be fine.
36. Why isn’t this Tylenol P.M. helping me sleep? I wish radiology departments were open 24/7. I would have been all over signing up for the 2 a.m. mammogram slot. Maybe I should take another pill.
37. Wait. Doesn’t too much Tylenol lead to liver damage? I really can’t be dealing with liver problems when my body needs to gear up for chemotherapy. Screw it. I’ll just stay awake until my repeat mammogram — which is still another nine hours and 28 minutes away.
38. If I arrive early, I wonder if they can squeeze me in. No pun intended.
39. This X-ray technician is so amazingly kind. She almost makes me feel like I have nothing to worry about, like this call-back is perfectly routine, like the tears streaming down my face and the fear coiled inside my gut are completely unfounded.
40. Please don’t apologize for squishing my boob into a pancake. Make that a crepe. I truly don’t care how much you pull, prod or press, as long as you get a clear picture.
41. I wonder if the radiologist who right now is reviewing my second set of images is married; if he, too, has children who do not deserve to be left motherless.
42. I’m done? The pictures were fine? I simply have dense breast tissue that makes images difficult to see through? I can leave now? I don’t need an ultrasound? I don’t need a biopsy? I don’t need chemo? I don’t have breast cancer?
43. Oh my God, I don’t have breast cancer!!!!!!
44. I think I can finally breathe.
45. My very dense — and grateful — breasts will see you all next year!