Normal--that's not a word I hear very often anymore. I can't express my relief upon hearing those words when I got my mammogram results today. "Everything looks normal, except all the changes from surgery and radiation."
OK, so not normal for a normal person, but normal for a person with breast cancer.
You can't imagine how it feels to go through one of these scans after having breast cancer, especially in a situation like mine, where the only mammograms I've ever had in my entire life were the ones that ended up with a diagnosis of breast cancer. I never got to do the routine mammograms for a few years first. The first one I did was just to verify what was obvious to everyone in the room but me, selfishly steeped in denial upon looking at those three round circles on the ultrasound at 2:30, 3 o'clock, etc. The next mammogram was to look for additional cancer on the right, and that was positive, I guess, since nothing was found. Then, I had a mammogram after my first surgery to see if I would need another wire placed for the re-excision. That was when I had to go back four different times until I was bleeding, only to be told something strange showed up on the right, which wasn't true at all, but that didn't mean that hearing it didn't make me almost have a heart attack. I had to get all bad-ass on the radiologist and demand more information. I wonder what she thought on seeing this young woman with wild red hair, blood stains on her hospital gown, screaming and gesturing with her hands in the hair. I suppose it was something like Holy shit, I guess we should answer her questions.
I don't know how to have a mammogram that doesn't confirm cancer. I've never done it before, so I was so nervous the last few days it was almost tangible. Last night I hung out with Augie while Gabe took Lenny to gymnastics. Before that I picked the kids up and fed them an early dinner, but I barely remember doing it. After they went to bed we watched Salt (terrible movie--really terrible) while I surfed around the web trying to find a place to go to lunch near Northwestern with the hope that we would have some reason to celebrate. In reality I just needed several mindless distractions at once.
God was I nervous this morning. Talking nonstop on the entire car ride after we dropped the kids off at daycare (they got there so early they had to eat breakfast there and no other kids had arrived yet). Saying goodbye to Gabe when I was called back, asking him to wish me luck. Reading an old People magazine about Charlie Sheen and the Royal wedding (not together, unfortunately--that would be worth watching). Feeling a little angry that they actually got me back into the mammogram room so quickly. Wincing through the three images taken of my right breast. Almost crying through the eight they took on the left. At one point, the technician called me over to look at one of the images. See all of these metal clips in your breast? Huh, yeah, I see those. I vaguely remember being told they were in there but I didn't realize they were permanent. Yes, these mark your tumors. We watch this area most closely. It is way on the side of your breast, near your chest wall, so that's why I have to really make sure we can get to that difficult spot. I don't mean to hurt you.
Oh, I said, realizing she was actually apologizing to me. I'm not sure that's happened before in this whole ordeal.
Then I went back out to the waiting area until a radiologist's assistant called me back. I have your results, let's go into this room. I was shaking. Oh wait (psych!), this room is taken. Let's go to another one.
We started a long walk down the hallway and I felt like I was walking through quicksand. It was like some kind of Chinese water torture.
We got there and she asked me to sign a piece of paper. "Your mammogram doesn't show anything but the expected changes from surgery and radiation."
Wait, so it's normal? Yes, it's normal. Oh my God, I said, and I actually put my hand on my heart, a melodramatic gesture that I probably have never done before in my life. Yes, she said, you just need to come back in six months to have the left side imaged again. I'm going to take you over to Dr. Hansen now (my surgeon).
But my husband is waiting for me outside. OK, I'll get him. Is he Mr. Jacob? No, Sterritt, I said. Gabe Sterritt. Dave? No, GABE. And when you get him can you tell him it's normal? He's going to want to know. She looked surprised. Sure, if I have your permission. Jesus Christ, I wanted to say, do you think anyone in my situation would keep that news from her own husband?
While I was waiting for the surgeon a knock came on the door. Mrs. Jacob? Your husband is here. Is it ok if he comes in? Um, why the hell do you think he is here with me? I would have liked him to come with me for the mammogram itself, or at least to be able to wait near the imaging area rather than four rooms away. But I didn't say that.
The P.A. and surgeon thought everything looked great, my exam was normal, and they both asked more questions about my mastitis than anything else. Apparently, the surgeon was more concerned than she let on about that. I said that the redness was gone, the rock-like mass that was moving around inside my breast had dissipated. Gabe remarked that we thought it couldn't be cancer if it was that big all of a sudden, and she said, well, usually that's true. But it still concerns us. I'm sure your mind was going there. It happens, but it's not normal. Now your images look great, the breast feels fine.
And that's as normal as normal can be in this situation. Normal enough to warrant a celebration, since I had taken the day off of work to deal with the appointments. Gabe and I went out to brunch. Then I got a too-expensive pedicure and went shopping on the Mag mile. I felt so strange, so invisible, as no one knew I had cancer, and I saw all these hip women with hairstyles like mine, and no one gave me a second look, which was wonderful. The only cancer moment I had was in Victoria's secret when the associate asked me if I wanted a bra fitting. No, I laughed, I'm fine. She was very persistent. I wanted to say, I don't need to ruin your enthusiasm with a glance at my cancer scars and radiation tattoos. Instead I said, I know my size, and I left what used to be one of my favorite stores when I realized I couldn't wear anything in the place, since I can't stand underwire bras anymore due to the pain.
No matter. I felt better at the Gap, where some outrageously inaccurate vanity sizing led me to buy a pair of size 00 shorts. I laughed out loud again as I realized I was that obnoxious girl in the dressing room that makes everyone else roll their eyes: Do you have these in a zero? Tried them on, could take them off without unzipping them. Do you even make double zero? Those fit comfortably. I asked what the truly small women wear, the ones who are shorter than me or don't have hips, the girls who have never had kids. Well, we have kids sizes, she said. Right. I realized that at one point I wouldn't have been laughing in these different situations. I might have been annoyed, or embarrassed. I never did embarrass easily, even as a teenager, but now it's next to impossible to faze me. I mean, at one point I was walking down Michigan avenue completely bald with no eyebrows, window shopping, ignoring all the stares and whispers around me. That wasn't so long ago. Today, I was just another face, another body, another wallet walking down the street. I was normal.
So there it is. I'm almost a year away from diagnosis and I've been given a six month reprieve from hell. I will see my oncologist in three months, and I will still worry about this pain in my back and I will never be able to have normal aches and pains again, or at least not for a few years, and I will get mammograms every six months for years, but for a while I've got this knowledge:
I don't have breast cancer anymore.
And I'll hold onto that feeling for as long as I can, for as long as it's true. Here's to hoping that's a long, long time.