Here’s the backstory: About 15 years ago, I had benign lumps removed from both my breasts, and I was supposed to be diligent about following up with my doctor. Certainly I was, for a while. But clean scan followed clean scan, and I got careless.
In April 2007, though, I was about to be out of a job. I was an editor at Time Inc. (also the parent company of this Web site), which offered low-cost mammograms once a year to employees, but the magazine where I was working—Life—had shut down. We were days away from shutting out the lights. So just before 2 p.m. on a Monday, I was debating how best to use my time: finish packing up or keep my mammogram appointment. It was a money thing, in the end. I'd barely started looking for another job, and the scan was basically free. I went for the scan.
Two days later someone from the diagnostic service called: The mammogram had picked up an irregularity in my left breast. I needed a follow-up. “OK,” I said. A day later, I got a letter that reiterated the message: I had to have another mammogram. But I remained unconcerned; I’d been through this fire drill before. Someone from the service started phoning weekly to ask if I had scheduled the test. I took to ducking the calls.
I didn't get around to the appointment until July. Since April, in quick succession, I had lost a job, an uncle to a stroke, a cousin to cancer, and someone I love dearly to rehab—a secret crack user. I was reeling.
I sat in a darkened room, looking up at my X-rays on a light wall, as the radiologist pointed out the tiny calcium deposits that might mean something or nothing at all. The spots looked suspicious enough that she wanted to schedule a biopsy. I could choose a full-blown surgical excision or something called a Mammotome, a minimally invasive procedure.
I stared at her for about five seconds before I burst into tears. I couldn’t stop crying—not when she detailed my options, not when she walked me to the scheduling room, not when the two women who juggle the practice's multitude of appointments stared at me in alarm. They offered Kleenex and a pat on the arm. I couldn't begin to explain that I wasn't crying for myself: I was crying for everyone and everything I'd lost in the past few weeks.