This has been a stressful spring—and, I’ll be honest, a somewhat dark one—thanks to having our house on the market, an extremely tight-deadline work project, kids home every other day due to weather/holidays, and my tax accountant husband stuck at the office nearly 24/7. But sitting at the hospital breast center, waiting on a radiologist to tell me whether she thought I had cancer, were some of the darkest moments of my life.
Those are the moments that put everything into perspective. They’re wake-up calls. And while I can’t say I’m glad for the experience, it did provide the sort of big-picture view many of us need from time to time.
The Call No One Wants
News about an “asymmetrical density” in my left breast came after a string of crappy occurrences that were starting to feel like cruel jokes from the Universe, including a minor fender bender and dropping my phone into the toilet. I pulled the thing of out of a bag of rice and powered it up just long enough to get messages from my doctor and the imaging center telling me to come in for a follow-up mammogram. No sooner had I made the appointment, than my phone died for good.
I tried not to freak out. I had five days before the next appointment, and I knew I couldn’t be a basketcase that entire time. My daughters needed me. I didn’t want to frighten them.
But I was frightened. My aunt died of breast cancer in her 30s. Part of me couldn’t imagine following her to an early grave—and another part of me totally could. I did my best not to think about it. I kept on working. I took the girls to school, to the theater, to piano lessons and tae kwon do, until the time came to take myself to the breast center.
After the second mammogram, the technician led me into a waiting room and said the radiologist would report back shortly. I felt like my entire world had shrunk to that chair—that small space with me in it, texting updates to my husband on my new phone, trying to watch a cooking show on the clinic TV, really just holding my breath as every minute scraped by.
During those moments, you stand at a crossroads. You either get to return to everyday life, or you veer off in a scary new direction. The stress you cursed just a few days ago becomes a symbol of normalcy to which you would gladly return. You can’t believe you’ll hear anything other than, “It was a false alarm, go on home, we’re sorry to have bothered you.” Yet you know millions of women in millions of other waiting rooms hear the opposite. What makes you any more deserving of good news than any of them?
Taking the Waiting Room Home
Long story short, I didn’t get my “false alarm.” I got an ultrasound, followed by a biopsy. The doctor was warm, wonderful and optimistic. She felt certain the small mass was benign but wanted to be sure. So I braved the needles, feeling hopeful.
Then came two days of waiting on results. My new waiting room resembled my everyday life, except I still sat at the center, holding my breath. When your phone rings from a number you wish you didn’t recognize, it’s like finding yourself on the roof of a skyscraper, waiting to get pushed off.
This time I got to step away from the edge. My results were normal. I had permission to return to my regularly scheduled, hectic life.
This is the part where I wax poetic about What I Learned—where I tell you I have a new appreciation for life and a new commitment to taking care of myself. Those things are true, but I’d be lying if I said I emerged from the experience a suddenly better person. I still get stressed out. I still yell at my kids sometimes. I still eat junk food and don’t exercise as much as I should.
But I do have more of an understanding of how quickly everything can change. Now that my big work project is over, our house is sold, and my husband nears the end of tax season, I have a better perspective on how short those stressful seasons are in the scheme of what, in reality, is a short life for everyone. I say an extra prayer for the moms who trade waiting rooms for surgery tables and chemo chairs and more waiting for results that could either free them to return to their regularly scheduled lives or send them on a journey even deeper into the unknown.
And I cherish my own hectic life just a little more. I hug my girls tighter. I also try to be more gracious about the things that seem to pile on just when I’ve run out of time, money and patience. It can always be worse. Or it can all be taken away. Sooner or later most of us find ourselves in a waiting room, in dark moments that make other stress seem like a beacon of normal. I don’t want to wait until I’m there again to appreciate that gift.