What it's like to get an ultrasound on a winter day

The sun has risen, but it is only just pinking up at 6:45 a.m. The Breast Care Center is dark inside, the waiting room trying to look like somebody’s living room, with a few table lamps glowing. Unlike a living room, you have to type your name into a computer before you walk in. The machine pings and I wait for something to happen. Nothing does and the woman inside beckons me inside to sit down and wait my turn.

There is a garish Christmas tree in the corner, the kind you drag out of a box and prop up fully decorated. It vibrates with silver and white in its dark corner. I look around me and see mostly men, which surprises me. The last time I was here it was all women. I gather the men are waiting for their wives.

When my name is finally called, I answer the routine questions, which don’t have routine answers. Since my doctor has released me from care (read about that here), I have to change the name of the practice to which my results will be sent.

The woman looks at me and says, “That’s never happened before. I’ve never sent the results to a different doc from the one who ordered the tests.”

I have no response. I feel like saying, “I’m sorry,” but that’s not quite right. I feel, oddly, ashamed, and shrug my shoulders a bit.

And then she tells me that I’m having an ultrasound and will have the results before I leave. I can’t swallow. I’m in suspended animation, trying to imagine how I’ll get home if the news is bad. I am alone and I didn’t expect that I’d get immediate results.

I snap back to reality when she asks, “Why is ‘biopsy’ written on this?” For a moment I think she’s asking me. I assume they solve this problem because she sends me back to the waiting room, where I have no idea what to do with myself.

I see a young woman of 16 or so come in with her parents. “What the hell is a teenager doing here?” I just can’t put this girl into a world that makes sense. Teenagers should not need mammograms. Ever.

I finally go back to my cubicle to change clothes and put on a huge piece of cloth with ties coming from every direction. Has anyone ever successfully tied one up properly?

The same television show is playing on the television in the internal waiting room as in the main living room/waiting room. It feels like the television version of muzak, televaxion.

I am called in to the ultrasound room by a woman who makes eye contact, who sees me. I sit down on the crinkly paper of the examination table, and she says, “They told you why you’re here today, didn’t they?”

She tells me that when they compared my mammogram from a few weeks ago to the mammogram from two years ago they saw a small “thing,” a lymph node or a cyst that seemed to have grown a bit. “We’re not seeing anything new or terribly concerning, you know. We’re just double checking everything. Didn’t your doctor tell you this?”

For the first time since I’ve gotten the call back for the ultrasound I allow myself to imagine that this will be nothing. Fear begins unspooling from my neck and shoulders. It’s good that I can lay back now because I’m unsteady with some sort of emotion that I can’t name. It’s like terror trying to morph into hope.

She presses the tranducer against my breast and has to look for quite a while to find the “thing.” When she does, she presses buttons, no expression on her face. She leaves to consult the doc, and I wonder if they have to practice the expressionless face.

When she comes back to tell me that it’s just a lymph node, nothing abnormal at all, she says, “Come here” and folds me into her arms like I’m her sister. And, of course, I cry, because that’s what I do. When I stand up to leave, she hugs me again and says, “I’m so sorry you had to worry about this.”

The parking lot looks very different when I leave than it did an hour earlier. It’s going to be sunny and very cold. I get to the car and sob. I’m relieved. Of course I am.

But the parking lot is full. Lots of women will go through those doors today. Biopsies will be done. Ultrasounds will be completed. The news won’t always be good. I can’t stop thinking about that teenager.

When I drive away I’m not afraid anymore, not sick to my stomach with terror, but I’m heavy still with anger and sorrow. Cancer has foreshortened my emotional range, the toxicity of the fear works like an acid that etches deep lines in the joy.  I keep thinking of David Gray’s song. “This ain’t no love that’s guiding me.”

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