Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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Medical Favorites: The Mammogram

It’s that time of year for me. The yearly ob/gyn appointment, which leads to the yearly mammogram. It’s a favorite day for women everywhere. A few years ago there was all this hype because they were recommending only getting them every two years. The biggest reason is that they just cause so much damn stress for women.

I went Monday and it started off the usual way. Pink top, open in front. Arms up. Smooshed breasts, etc. Nothing attractive. When you get a good tech it is not terribly painful. Very uncomfortable, but not actually painful. Then you go in the special waiting room with the other women in the pink tops. They bring you a carnation when they clear you to leave.

“Do you want the new 3D mammogram? It is $60 if your insurance won’t cover it.”

“No thanks. My insurance won’t cover it. I already know that.” That was my first mistake.

I watch several women get their flowers and leave. I always take a long time. I start the usual mental gymnastics of talking in my head. Don’t get nervous, that’s bad for you. You always wait and worry and you are always ok. It actually got explained to me this time, partly by the poster on the wall and partly by the tech. There are four levels of breast density, A through D. I am a level C. Dense breasts make for difficult readings.

That’s what the tech tells me when she pulls me out of the room to talk to me without bringing me a flower.

“Because you are a level C, your doctor now has a standing order for you for a follow-up ultrasound after your mammogram.”

“Ok. I know I’ve had them before.”

“You should know it costs $200 if your insurance won’t cover it.” Crap, they should’ve told me I was getting a bargain earlier with the 60 bucks.

“Ok. So will you call insurance before?”

“No. You have to call them. You can use this room.”

This is when I start to get infuriated. I go through this with my orthotics too. Since when is it the patient’s job to make medical calls? I happen to lecture in the medical field and know how to be a patient advocate, but the average person does not have that experience. And even with that under my belt, I still am lost with this one. My niece works in a medical office and she explained that there are thousands of insurance companies that all have different rules. I get it, but isn’t that why docs hire office staff?

So you know how this goes. On hold. On hold. Verify who you are a thousand times.

“I’m sorry, what is the technical term for the procedure?”

I ask the tech.

“Breast ultrasound.” She seems a little shocked by the question because it wasn’t a tricky answer.

On hold. On hold.

“I’m sorry, but we need to speak to a medical professional about this.”

“Gee, that’s what I suggested.”

I walk over to the tech and have to practically force her to take the phone. She gives the woman the medical code and hands me back the phone.

I feel like pickle in the middle and I think this entire scenario is ridiculous. I’m now on hold again and this time there are two confused techs standing in the doorway because they can’t believe I can’t get a straight answer from my insurance company. I can’t believe I’m the one trying to get the straight answer.

“Good news. Your insurance will cover the ultrasound, but only if your doctor has pre-authorized it.”

I repeat it to the two techs in the doorway like a parrot who look at each other and shrug their shoulders. They have never heard of such a thing. Is that the same thing as a standing order? Back and forth, back and forth.

Finally I have enough.

“I WANT TO GO HOME. CAN I PLEASE JUST GO HOME? I’VE HAD ENOUGH.” I am now crying at this point. The techs feel terrible and say of course I can go home. I hang up the phone and I go take off the hated pink shirt.

On my way out, the techs try to nicely tell me the test can be done anytime. I just need to straighten out the insurance thing and reschedule. I ask her if anything in the regular mammogram came back questionable. She said no. I told her I wasn’t straightening anything out through my tears. I tell her I’m not coming back. And because my depression level has been super bad for 24 hours before I ever walked in the door, I tell her I don’t even care if I have cancer.

(Now right now, I apologize deeply to my dear, dear brave friends who have survived breast cancer. Several of you amazing powerhouses read my blog, so please know I mean no disrespect. All I can say is that depression makes you think terrible thoughts. That day I was sure that a mistake had been made and I was the one who was supposed to have cancer and die instead of Tim. Frankie desperately needs his father. At the time, I meant it, but I know it’s depressed thinking. Forgive me?)

Sometimes I just shake my head and wonder what has happened to the world. When did it get all mixed up? Why the hell was I even on the phone trying to get medical codes? Aren’t I the patient? I got the flower because they didn’t find cancer, but I admit I came home and threw it out. I was just angry. And I spent almost two hours in that office.

The next day my doctor’s office called. I assumed they were going to talk to me about the debacle of the day before. Nope. Just wanted me to know my pap came back positive for HPV virus. She explained it’s something you can get the first time you ever have sex, it just doesn’t show up. Nothing to worry much about though, just make sure you come every year to your check ups so we can keep on eye on you.

I always go to my appointments but I ask her what they are keeping an eye on? Oh. Higher risk of cervical cancer.

Perfect. I figured that’s just the universe being pissed off at me for saying the day before that I didn’t care if I got cancer.

I love being a woman.


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A Day in My Life…

On Monday, I noticed an odd spot on my breast. Looked like a bruise, but then not quite. I went to my friend’s house who is a breast cancer survivor and asked if I could show her. (I can’t imagine men being comfortable showing each other a concern- ha ha!) She thought it was strange but was more concerned whether there was a lump. We were both unhappy to discover there was a very distinct lump. She told me a few reasons why it probably wasn’t anything serious, but I definitely should call the doctor in the morning. The rest of the day it was in the back of my mind (of course), but I managed to keep it at bay knowing it was probably not serious.

Tuesday morning, I called the doctor first thing. They fit me in early afternoon. I had my usual full day ahead of me so the first couple of hours I just pushed along. Then I went in the hot tub to try to relax a bit before my clients started coming. I started to get that panicky feeling and my breathing was getting choppy. I talked to dear Summer, knowing she would give me a rational smack in the head and I would be fine. Instead, the flood gates opened. I was scared. Really, really scared. She offered to go to the appointment with me. In between sobs, I told her that wasn’t necessary and I knew she was as busy as I was. But of course she came and of course I needed her.

I had to pull it together to keep working until my appointment, but between clients I was bombarded with thoughts and fears. To be fair, they really weren’t irrational. I know better than most that a simple, small thing can alter your life forever. My first thought was Frankie. This just couldn’t possibly be anything because that 11-year-old kid couldn’t possibly be asked to have no parents at all. Even if I could be treated and beat it, that poor boy does not need to endure watching the process all over again. Treatments, vomiting, schedules being thrown out the window. Watching someone visibly change who is supposed to be your tower of strength. He just can’t be asked to do that again, right?

Then I started thinking about my life in the last couple of weeks. I have been re-evaluating my life very intently because I have been working too hard. I have been burning the candle at both ends. I have been exhausted at the end of every night and know I can’t keep it up. I have been trying to make changes, but have struggled with what changes to even make. And then I really panicked. Holy shit! What if the universe/God has been on my case about it because I need to make room for treatment? Is that what this has really been about? Summer and I were just talking this weekend about how with all the interactions we have with people, if we ever got cancer, we wouldn’t go to Roswell (our local cancer hospital). That would mean regular trips to PA or Ohio. Overwhelming thought. Breathing is getting tough again.

I take a shower before I go to the doctor. While I am in there, another related thought crosses my mind. I absolutely know what it takes to fight cancer. I know the stamina you need. I know that a positive attitude is mandatory for success. I know that I have to muster up the strength that I know I possess and I will have to figure out how to access it. And then I found myself sitting in the shower seat sobbing, just like the day I found Tim in there when his daughter came to surprise him for Father’s Day. Because I knew that I just couldn’t do it. I’m too depleted. I will end up dying because I’m not the woman I was before taking care of my terminal husband. Even though it has been three years, I’ve not recovered.

I know my friends will shore me up. I know it. But Christ, Frankie won’t even have a step-father who loves him after I’m gone. Tim’s kids had me and I don’t love them any less since he has been gone. I know that Tim had peace about that. I failed Frankie in that respect. Utterly failed.

Brigette was home with a sick child, but she kept in touch with texts. She told me she didn’t remember the last time she prayed as hard as she was praying for me.

We arrived at the doc’s. I love Dr. Grace. Tell her everything, trust her implicitly. She looks at my mark and looks puzzled. She hasn’t ever really seen anything like it before. (Why does that always happen to me? I’m always like a freak show for doctors!) BUT… she knows it definitely does NOT look like cancer. I love her because I never have to explain anything to her because she remembers every detail of my life. She thanks me for not waiting and says she is grateful she can trust that I won’t mess around with anything medically. And without being told, she knows it is because I can’t possibly take risks because Frankie needs me. She is glad I get that all on my own and she doesn’t have to pound it into my head. Even though I feel better after seeing her, she promises me by the end of business day I will have answers. She works her magic and I am able to leave her office and go directly to the radiology center.

Off we go. First the mammogram. You know the drill, ladies. First set of pictures and then you sit in the waiting room. As suspected, I get called back for more. Now they see something in the other breast they are also concerned about. Great. She has to smoosh them further for the second set. Then they ask you to hold your breath while they take the image. I try until I finally gasp because the pain is too much. She tells me ever so nicely that she hopes she doesn’t have to retake them because I yelled out.

I go back in the waiting room and tell Summer I can’t believe with all our modern medicine we haven’t figured out anything better than putting our delicate breasts into a vice grip. She laughs and tells me if men had boobs, there would have been an answer years ago. I laugh at that. (Yes, Gary, I admit that is a sexist comment, but cut me some slack!)

Next the sonogram. She tells me she thinks it is a cyst. Doesn’t know why or how it would get there, but possibly it was pinched somehow. Phew.

I tell my step-son Colin about my day. He just looks at me. I told him that I didn’t think our family could go through it again. I told him I didn’t think we would be able to pull off the great job we did with his dad this time. He just nodded his head.

Later, my doc’s office calls and say they agree it’s a cyst. They want me to put the hottest compresses I can stand on it, as many times a day as I can manage it. (Apparently they don’t know I am already burning the candle at both ends and don’t even make time to eat half the time!) If it doesn’t go away in a month, then I have to see a surgeon. Bottom line is, it may not be cancer, but it is still not right and not supposed to be there.

So I spent the night rejoicing. I spent the rest of the night being super grateful that I don’t have cancer.

Wrong.

I spent the night continuing to have a hard time breathing. Being the lucky woman I am, (no, that is NOT sarcasm) male and female friends called to check on me or just to say hello (because they didn’t know what was going on). And every time I said hello, I would burst into tears again. I wanted to be happy, but I felt like a wrung out dish rag.

Everyone got it. No one judged me. They all told me that my fear was perfectly logical, understand, reasonable, not irrational. My daughter Emily called me about 10 PM and we talked til after midnight. She told me that if I ever got diagnosed, she would move up here and help take care of me. She said she didn’t do that for her dad but she would do it this time. I read between the lines and thought she must have regrets about that with her dad. I made a mental note to talk to her in the near future because I don’t want her to be plagued with that.

I watched a movie recently. The girl looked at the guy and said something like, “You weren’t there when I needed you. In the end, that’s all relationships are. It’s being there for the big stuff.” I thought it was an excellent summation. I’m lucky enough to have people who ARE there. Summer left work to go with me because she got it. Anyone who happened to know I was worried about a lump would have done what they could to support me because they get it. If you lived through Tim’s cancer with us, or if you read the book afterward, you get it. If you love me, if you know how to feel compassion, you are there by my side.

Today is a new day. Now I am starting to feel that relief I thought I would feel last night. Today I am breathing easier and emotionally feel the gratefulness I understood intellectually yesterday. Again, thanks to my amazing support system. You know who you are. And for those of you who are reading and wondering why I didn’t tell you, don’t. It all happened fast so don’t be mad at me :).

I wonder what today will bring?