Every six months I have some kind of test on my breasts. Every summer, it’s a mammogram; every winter, it’s an MRI.
While cancer runs in some families, it gallops in mine. There are only two relatives I know of who died of something other than cancer, and one of them really shouldn’t count. My maternal grandfather was born premature and his heart wasn’t quite ready. He had heart problems his whole life and died of a heart attack, so I don’t think it’s fair to include him in the mix.
In fact, my father had three different kinds of cancer. Not cancers that started in one place and metastasized to another, but three different primary tumors. Very unusual. So I think he should count as three.
When every female relative of yours dies of breast cancer, you start to think it may just be a foregone conclusion. As much as I try to keep a positive attitude, I don’t really wonder if it’s going to happen, but when.
So when it came time for my latest breast MRI, I was once again filled with the same familiar mix of anxiety and dread. Just six months earlier, my mammogram became an ultrasound that became a biopsy. It turned out to be nothing, but it scared the daylights out of me.
I was mentally preparing for something like that to happen again and reminding myself that whatever they find, they will have found it early. Early is good. Early is something none of my other relatives had.
I always wonder when I go in for these tests if the people at the front desk or the techs running the machines have any idea what’s going on inside the patients’ heads. To them, it’s just another routine screening, but to me, it’s something much more.
Every time I go in, I think of my maternal grandmother, my mom and my sister. I watched breast cancer metastasize to brain cancer in my grandma. At the end, she thought she was a kid again, back on her farm in Iowa, and she didn’t know me at all. I was so mad at God for not letting her go out a little more gracefully.
I watched breast cancer metastasize to liver cancer in my mom. She went through some horrible treatments to shrink the tumors but they wreaked havoc on the rest of her. She got weaker and weaker until she couldn’t even walk and died in the one place an RN of over 50 years doesn’t want to die: a hospital.
I watched breast cancer take my sister just six months after her diagnosis. She thought she was merely experiencing really bad back pain but it was actually compression fractures from the cancer eating away at her spine. As an unmarried woman who had no insurance, she needed someone to navigate the healthcare system for her, and I, as her only sister, did just that. She, at least, had the ending she wanted, on her terms. But it was still an ending.
So when I go in for these tests every six months, they aren’t just routine maintenance for me. They are a reminder of how devastating this disease is, not only for the patients, but for those who love and care for them. I am terrified every six months. It hasn’t gotten any easier.
And I’m on high alert for service failures. I am extra-sensitive to how I’m spoken to, how things are explained, the tone of voice they’re using with me, the degree of kindness and gentleness they show, all of it.
This was a place I’d not been to before and I didn’t know what to expect from them. I’m very happy to report they did a wonderful job. Although they couldn’t possibly know what was going through my head or how anxious I was, they did a great job of caring for me from the moment I walked in to the moment I walked out.
If you’re working in imaging, please keep this in mind. For you, it’s just another day at the office. For the rest of us, it’s something much, much more.