Dealing with mortal fear. Will I dodge the breast cancer bullet?

Photo: Joe Gardner/Unsplash

Home alone, I flip through the stack of mail on the bar in the kitchen. Hmm…my mammogram results. Letter good, phone call bad, I think, slitting the envelope from SIRA Imaging Center and unfolding the letter.

Dear Ms. Shanahan:

You recent screening mammogram performed on March 29, 2016, showed a finding that requires additional imaging studies for a complete evaluation…

I look out the window, down 1st Street at the bruised sky of the setting spring sun. A finding. Requires additional imaging studies.

“Sh*t!”

I feel my heart thud, thud. I suck in my breath and reread the letter. How urgent could it be, I wonder, if they’d sent a letter? I unclench my heart, the pit in my stomach, my mind. It couldn’t be that bad, I tell myself again, melting the news into my worldview. They hadn’t called.

I think of the other times in my life when I’d dodged a bullet. Twice. Once when I’d survived a month-long hospital stay. Once when my husband did.

So life has aimed the gun at me for another round of Russian Roulette. Will cancer be the bullet this time? How many bullets do I survive if Death only needs one? And, how many empty chambers does the gun have — how many times will the trigger click in my lifetime?”

I will be strong and courageous. I will not be afraid. Like the Bible verse says.

I whip out my cellphone and make the call — make an appointment at SIRA Imaging for the following week. They say I should plan on being there for four hours. For another mammogram…and an ultrasound.

Four hours. Damn. Sounds serious.

That night, when my husband comes home, I give him the news.

“Um…let me look it up,” Jim, ever the professor, says.

“Look up what, hun?” I say.

He studies his phone. “There’s a very low percentage in this case.”

“Low percentage of what?”

“Of breast cancer in women asked to return for additional screening. Less than one percent,” he says.

“Wow! That’s good! Wonder why they scared the hell out of me, then?”

He shrugs. Existentially.


I show up promptly at nine the fine spring morning of my appointment at SIRA Imaging.

We’d recently moved from Boston to Bloomington, Indiana, where everything is nearby, where my doctor, the hospital, and SIRA Imaging are five minutes from my house. So, I could find out if I had cancer conveniently enough.

In the waiting room, I didn’t wait long

“Hi, I’m Bailey. I’ll be doing your testing today,” a young woman says.

“Hi, Bailey. I think you did my mammogram.”

She looks at my chart. “You’re right.” She smiles. A friendly Hoosier smile.

I wonder how many women she tests end up with breast cancer? She’s so young and innocent looking, how does she deal? And why had she chosen her profession? I admire her. Screening for cancer isn’t something I’d want to do. Way too hard, I think, walking down the hallway behind her.

I’d recently read a Washington Post editorial about breast cancer walks not helping the general perception that all breast cancers can be cured, that if you fight hard enough, it’s a walk in the park. The editorial stressed that thirty percent of breast cancers metastasize, and there’s no cure for that. No cure at all. “More than 40,000 women die each year, a number that has hardly declined in 25 years.” Many women in this thirty percent group feel shame that they aren’t a walk-for-breast-cancer success story the editorial concludes.

Bailey shows me into the closet changing room and asks me to put on a gown. There’s a door in, a door out. Two doors. She says when I’m ready, to open the second door into the screening room. The changing room is dim, calming. A woven basket awaits my used gown. I set my bag on the bench, take off my top and my bra. I worm my way into the blue-grey gown, opening in front, and tie the pesky closure.

I open the second door and step into the slightly creepy imaging room, lit by the hulking mammogram’s computer-generated lighting. Nervous, I clutch the front of the awkward gown, looking expectantly at Bailey, and tell her about the pains I’ve had in my right breast since I got the news that I needed additional screening.

She smiles as if phantom pains were perfectly normal.

“I’m taking four positions of your right breast,” she says, positioning my right breast against a vertically tilted plastic plate.

She presses a button. The second plate squeezes my breast in place. She presses the button again, making a tighter fit — a painful fit.

I suck in my breath, grimace, try not to cry.

“I know it’s uncomfortable. Hold you breath. Don’t take a breath,” she says as she rushes to the console behind the windowed wall that protects her from the X-Rays.

She zaps my breast in two positions between the vertical plates, then asks me to step back while she positions the plate horizontally. She snaps two more shots, my breasts pinched between the two horizontal plates. I hold my breath way more than is necessary, tensing up, clenching my fist as the rigid plastic plates smush me flat.

Finally, she’s done. “The doctor will look at your images and decide if he wants the ultrasound. Wait here,” she says.

“He’ll look at them now — while I wait?” I say, unbelieving.

“Yes,” she says, nodding.

She leaves the door open, and I wait in the changing room, checking my phone, trying not to think.

A little later, she returns smiling. “You don’t have to have the ultrasound.”

The universe gathers me up and rocks me on a wave of mortal happiness. “Really? It’s okay?”

“When you’re dressed,” she says, “the doctor wants to talk to you. Just open the door, and I’ll show you to the waiting room.”

Elated, I toss the yucky gown in the woven basket, holding onto the great news: I don’t have to have an ultrasound. I can go home soon.

I dress then open the second door, smiling, and she smiles back, but doesn’t say anything. She picks up my chart. “This way.”

She leads me down the hall to a windowed waiting room, blinds closed, the dim room lit by a small lamp on the corner table. There are three or four chairs and a TV, a stack of magazines on the table by the lamp. She says the doctor will be in soon, so I sit to flip through a magazine.

But, nervous energy burns a hole in my pockets, and I pop up, unable to read. I’m fine! I pace the room until I notice a display of pamphlets on top of the TV. I check it out: “Breast Cancer. Next Steps.” “Dealing with Breast Cancer.”

My stomach flips, dropping fast, like I’m on the Cannonball Rollercoaster at Lake Winnepesaukah in Tennessee where I grew up. Without a safety bar. I don’t need an ultrasound, I think, because the mammogram images are so conclusive: I have breast cancer. That’s why the doctor wants to see me, why I can’t go home yet. Mortal fear seizes my chest, my heart, my stomach. Grips me around the throat, and I gasp.

Frantic, I sit, my mouth lunging for air. The whole scenario plays out in my mind’s eye: Talking to the doctor about my diagnosis. Calling Jim, Isabel — our daughter, my Mom. Rounds of chemo, of radiation. A lumpectomy, a mastectomy, possibly.

A knock interrupts my morbid thoughts. Dr. Death at the door.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Monson.”

I stand up, shake his hand. “Hi,” I croak. “Lisa Shanahan.”

“Well, your images look good. I don’t see anything worrisome.”

My emotional dam bursts in a shaken-soda-bottle rush. I burst into tears. I hug him.

“What was the finding, then?” I manage to say.

“An irregularity in the tissue. We’ll keep an eye, do a screening every six months for awhile.”

“But it’s nothing?”

“Yes, nothing to worry about,” the doctor says.

So, it’s a something that’s nothing, I think. But it has to be watched. I decide it’s nothing…nothing at all. It doesn’t even have a name.

I’ll go back in six months for another round of Russian Roulette. I’ve not been wounded. The chamber was empty this time, a blank. Game over. I don’t have to play again for six more months. I will be strong and courageous. I will not be afraid.


Dedicated to women who’ve gotten a breast cancer diagnosis.