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THIRD DATE WITH A MAMMOGRAM

So, in the end, you decide to schedule that mammogram.

Four years ago when you turned forty your doctor gave you the party line. And then she gave you the truth. The best she could do was commiserate with you about how mammography is not the best diagnostic tool and how insurance companies won’t pay for ultrasounds. The false positives and accompanying unnecessary stress and medical procedures, the then-recent news that mammograms may do more harm than good…yes, it’s confusing, she agreed. Every woman has to decide for herself.

In general, you don’t like to go looking for trouble. You have spent a lot of years learning to trust your body. You believe that if you eat right and exercise and do yoga and pray and meditate your body will perform and heal as God designed it to. And you do all those things. You understand and believe in and do your best to honor the body-mind-spirit connection. And you try not to let fear run your life.

But you sometimes don’t handle stress very well. You get easily overwhelmed with work and homework and schedules and life as a single mom.  Minor frustrations accumulate without you even noticing, until one day you fall apart in a fit of rage or a puddle of tears for a thousand tiny reasons you can’t put your finger on.

And you didn’t always eat as well as you do these days. There were those decades, for example, when diet soda was a constant, beginning with Tab in junior high, then various alliances with diet Coke and diet Pepsi as they went through different formulations.

Starting in your mid-20’s, you diligently kept up with the latest health trends and tried to do all the right things.  You drove yourself and others crazy with your phases: low-fat, low-carb, high-fiber, no dairy, raw food, food combining, no sugar, then no agave.  You read The China Study and found it very convincing, but those years you went without meat you felt the worst. So then you read the studies debunking The China Study and discovered it was not meat that was the problem, but grains.  So you learned to make “bread” from cashews and “rice” from cauliflower, and coconut in all its many forms became your new best friend.

You gave up coffee years ago, although now it seems maybe you shouldn’t have…at least as of this week, “they” are saying coffee is good for you.

You don’t have any family history of breast cancer. You don’t smoke or drink. You’re not overweight.

But you haven’t had a baby, either.  Not that you didn’t want to, but your now 13-year-old baby chose to arrive through another birthmother.

And then there was the complication of the unexpected hysterectomy at age 30, after which you started taking estrogen because yours was suddenly gone and estrogen is important for bone health. Your bones are doing great, and you very much appreciate how that little patch keeps the hot flashes away. But there’s a risk with those hormones…a higher risk of breast cancer.

Too much information, no real answers.  For every point, a counterpoint…

So what to do about that mammogram?

You think about it. And you pray about it. And, at last, you decide a compromise is in order. You’ll do it, but only every other year.

You get a mammogram at 40 and at 42 and both reports say something like, “no findings, but this test is not perfect so don’t put too much stock in our conclusion and don’t go trying to blame us if we’re wrong.” This, you understand, is their typical jargon. Your doctor says you’re fine.

And now it’s been two years again. Already?

The imaging place calls to ask if you want to schedule an appointment. You are having a very terrible day at work and say, “Yes, I do, but I can’t right now.” And the woman on the other end hears the stress in your voice and understands. She suggests you call back as soon as you can and wishes you a good day.

Work settles down and, a few weeks later, you make that phone call. You have a day off coming up and figure that would be a good time to take care of it. But there are no openings on the 22nd and 22 is your favorite number so you have to decide whether to wait until next month or find another time this month. The 19th at 8:30 a.m. is open. At least that won’t disrupt your workday too much, so you say okay.

After that, things get weird.

Suddenly, your whole life is colored by this appointment on the calendar. It’s similar to what happens when you are in possession of a plane ticket, only now, instead of being highly attuned to the words “crash” and “terrorism” and random news stories of things going wrong with and on airplanes, your antennae — without your conscious permission — seek information about cancer and breast cancer and mammograms, mastectomies and chemotherapy and radiation.

You find yourself the star of a dramatic movie inside your head. Without even realizing it – as if asleep – you construct stories with a variety of endings: your tragic death or your triumphant recovery or your spontaneous and miraculous healing.  You don’t watch the news, but you don’t have to…you’re inundated every day with the made-up and all-too-real stories of women on the front lines: Kristina Braverman in “Parenthood;” a friend you met six months ago when she was right in the middle of treatment; a writing classmate who is working on publishing her survival story; Tig Notaro, who got onstage and performed her comedy show the day after her diagnosis.

You want to distinguish yourself from these women. But you can’t. Because they are you…or were, before they were diagnosed.

You wonder how you’d handle it. Who you’d tell. If there would be any surprises – good or bad – as to who your friends are. The worst would be telling your mom, because she worries so much anyway. Worrying would not be helpful. Would you be an open book in the process, posting Facebook status updates and blog posts to keep people in the loop? Would you know how to ask for help?

Song lyrics and quotes and poems all take on special significance that fuel your preoccupation. You catch yourself playing DOE instead of DIE in a Scrabble game even though you have five “I’s” that will be impossible to get rid of.  You know you’re being ridiculous. You can’t help it.

Three days before your appointment you and a co-worker hang pumpkin lights in the hallway of the office. A few minutes later you’re back at your desk and hear some activity outside your door. “I’m building a little graveyard outside your office,” she says. The plastic skulls and RIP headstones would not fit on the string of lights, and your bookshelves happened to be empty, so she’s arranging a macabre display for passers-by to enjoy. The macabre voice in your head says, “That won’t be so funny if….”

Two days before your appointment you find a note on your almost-brand-new car as you’re leaving work, a note explaining the large dent on the passenger side. It’s not a big deal. The driver who hit you is very nice, apologetic and willing to pay. But still you wonder…is it a bad omen?

One day before your appointment the principal at your son’s school calls to inform you that he’s been skipping classes for the past two weeks and getting into all manner of trouble off-campus with some other boys. You decide that you’re barely capable of managing your life and his as it is. What if…

And as if all this wasn’t crazy-making enough, you have to contend with your knowledge of the law of attraction. You have to face the fact that your fear is what draws to you the thing you fear.

You recognize this spiral from two years ago, and four years ago. But this time it’s worse because, no matter how you look at it, you’re two years closer to the end of your life. And you have worked very hard these last two years to heal your limiting belief systems, to figure out who you want to be when you grow up…and to put yourself on a trajectory of becoming that. So now there’s more at stake, more to gain and more to lose. It all just seems so precious and tenuous and temporary and fragile. 

And that…is the gift in this madness. Ultimately, all this obsessing is your flawed human way of noticing and appreciating your life as it is. It’s not perfect…but you love it. You love your wild child. You love your sometimes-stressful job and all the ways it makes the rest of the life you love possible. You love your body and your breasts. You love your relationship with God and, even inside all the fear generated by your over-active writer’s mind, you trust that He’s got your back. He’s got the big picture. You don’t always like the pieces of it that you can see. You don’t have to. But you do have to choose — again and again, sometimes minute by minute — what you want to believe.

On a dark, blustery, rainy Friday morning you drop your son off at school, encouraging him to end the week on a high note. You put gas in your dented car. You arrive early, sit in the parking lot and say some prayers. When it’s time, you go inside and check in. You sit down and breathe and wait for them to call your name.

– Alizabeth Rasmussen is a freelance writer and baseball mom exploring what it means to be perfectly, imperfectly human. She is a former food columnist for the West Seattle Herald and currently blogs about God in real life at Faith Squared.

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