What I know
When I answer the phone, I know it is my doctor’s office. When I listen to the counselor, I know what I need to do, where to go, at what time. When I hang up the phone, I know I feel scared, and anxious, because I don’t really know anything.
We have been working our way through the Dr. Who series. We’re on the last episode with the Tenth Doctor, who I love with abandon. I’m half in love with David Tennant who plays the Tenth Doctor. I’m in love with his whimsy and frenetic energy, from his flowing trench coat to his professorial reading glasses and that hair, the hair all of the ladies—his traveling companions—reference: light brown tufts sticking up on top of his head as if he has been surprised, like in a cartoon. He’s brilliant and cunning and unpredictable and dying.
What I Don’t Know
I call my husband. After he doesn’t answer, I send him a text message—“Please call me.”—and call him again. After he doesn’t answer, I feel my calm eroding. After I fret and pace and text other friends, I hear my husband’s ring-tone. And knowing this could be anything, it could be nothing, it could be a new, painful, frightening beginning, I sob.
To the Rescue
The Doctor travels through space and time in his blue Police Box Tardis and always knows where and when he is needed, whether 15 million years in the future or at Agatha Christie’s tea party. No weapons, he only travels with a mortal companion (always female), magic billfold, and sonic screwdriver. He is the last of the Time Lords dedicated to saving humanity again and again. His companions scream, “Doctor, I need you!” They are hunted and trapped by alien spider-people, Daleks, and Cybermen, poisonous gas, and maniacal madmen—death, in all of its strange forms.
Doctors argue about the need for annual mammography, especially in women below the age of 50. There are benefits (early detection) and drawbacks (false positives) and no guarantees for an increased rate of survival. One doctor recommends multiple screenings per year while another argues for biennial exams. I read the studies and commentaries like I’m watching a ping pong game.
What I Fear
I step out of the Tardis—I am The Doctor’s newest companion. It is the future. There are no talking cats. No flying cars in an overcrowded New New York. Only a woman. In a bed. Bald. A port juts out of her sternum. Her breasts patched together, seams showing. She looks like me.
The Eleventh Doctor
When Doctor Who dies, he regenerates into a new physical form. I’ve heard good things about Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor, and Peter Capaldi, the twelveth, but I’m not ready to let go of Number Ten. I’m not done traveling with him. We haven’t watched the second half of the last episode; I’m just not ready despite the possibilities. The doctor is dying, but he’ll become Matt Smith. Could be good, could be annoying. I choose to linger in the in-between.
Moments of Awareness
I am aware of every moment, every fit of laughter my children send me into, like this morning when I walked into the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee, looked up, and saw my seven-year-old son bundled like a monk from head to toe in the orange blanket, sitting cross-legged like a Buddha on the couch, staring quietly at me. We stared at one another for a moment then dissolved into giggles. I am aware of touch—the feel of my daughter’s hair through my fingers, my son’s baby-soft cheeks as he sleeps, the wiry fur of my puppy and the oily-silky fur of my elderly Saint Bernard, my husband’s hug that lasts a little longer than normal. I am aware of smells—the sweet buttery aroma of banana bread as I open the front door after Rick’s afternoon baking spree, the sweat behind my son’s ear after running up and down the street on an unseasonably warm day, earth and rain on the dog’s paws after a walk.
• True or false: False positives are bad? False: This happens when a mammogram looks suspiciously cancerous, but after closer scrutiny is merely polycystic breast tissue. Totally benign.
• True or false: False positives are bad? True: False positives could be an early warning sign of calcification leading to increased cell growth leading to cancer. While there is no evidence that benign cysts lead to cancer, they can scare the ever-living shit out of you.
• True or false: False positives are bad? True: Can we just agree that this is a terrible name for the results of a test? As a child we learn positive reinforcement, positive behavior, positive role models. If the positive is false it is negative. As a child we learn that negatives lead to punishment, to less than, to taking away. But a positive mammogram means cancer, which is, in fact, negative.
When The Doctor regenerates, he will be the same Time Lord—same memories as the preceding corporeal life form that he was—but he’ll have a new face, a new personality, and worse yet, a new catchphrase. Past Doctors have had mildly boring catchphrases like the First Doctor (“Nonsense!”) or the Seventh Doctor (“Fine”), but then there are the nutty catchphrases of Doctors Three and Four (“Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!” and “Would you like a Jelly Baby?”). The Tenth Doctor—my Doctor—walks intensely towards an exit and shouts, “Allons-y!” “It’s French,” he explains, “for let’s go!”
Women I Know Who Have Breast Cancer
Women I Knew Who Died From Breast Cancer
I’m on hold with the doctor’s office. I’m on hold with the diagnostic center. I’m in limbo in the elevator for just one floor, hanging perilously between my life as it is now, in the present, and whatever comes next. Canned music doesn’t comfort me or help pass the time. What if elevator music was honest? What if waiting-on-hold music had a sense of humor? What if when I waited on my end of the phone or in that eternal elevator ride I heard Carol King’s “Anticipation” or The Kinks “Tired of Waiting?” Maybe Jack Johnson crooning, “I’m so tired, tired of waiting on you,” or Tom Petty empathizing, “The waaaaaaaiting, is the hardest part?” C’mon, Doc, give a companion a laugh.
The only thing I truly dislike about Dr. Who is the rescue motif. Must The Doctor’s companions always be in peril, always in need of being rescued like some Sci-Fi princess? And then again, here I am traveling alongside him, awaiting rescue. I hate this dependency. I am a 21st century, educated woman. I eat healthy whole foods. I don’t drink or smoke. I’m cutting back on caffeine. But here I am, in an elevator shaped like a Tardis, rocketing to my doom. Unless, The Doctor saves me.
Get off the elevator.
Enter the diagnostic center.
Hold your husband’s hand.
Give the lady behind the front desk in the hot pink North Face jacket your insurance card and co-pay.
Sign the HIPPA form.
Wait for your name to be called.
Walk back to the mammography room.
Disrobe from the waist up.
Feel awkward about being naked from the waist up.
Try to relax while the technician adjusts and readjusts your breast on the plate.
Try to remain still as the technician retreats behind her protective Plexiglas and snaps the x-ray photo.
Do this again.
Pull the hospital gown over your breasts, gather your shirt, bra, coat, and purse.
Follow the technician to another waiting room.
Notice all of the women in hospital gowns thumbing through magazines, watching Ellen.
Follow a different technician to the ultrasound room.
Lie on your back on the examination table.
Feel the warm jelly smoothed onto your breast.
Squeeze your eyes closed as the technician presses the transducer wand over your skin. Refuse to look up at the computer screen as the wand transmits images of your breast.
(Like when you saw your first child in utero, only different.)
Wipe away the gel and pull the gown together again.
Follow the technician to another examination room.
Wait for your husband to arrive.
Wait for the radiologist to arrive.
“Fine,” you think.
Stare at the twin monitors, the images of your breast in black and white.
Try not to panic.
Try not to hyperventilate.
“Nonsense!” you are hyperventilating.
Try to smile at your husband’s jokes.
“Would you like a Jelly Baby?”
Try to stay positive.
Try not to shake and shiver.
Shake the radiologist’s hand.
Let’s have a look.
“Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!”
Eyes on the screen.
I’m ready, Doctor.
“Doctor, I need you!”