Photo courtesy of BigStock/smolaw
Dear Gentle Reader: The following is about a breast cancer scare. Please feel free to pass on reading if there’s a risk of this triggering a negative emotional reaction. I care about you! -Ellie
It was forty-one hours of personal hell—the kind that’s marked by absolute worst-case thoughts.
First, some background.
A thing about womanhood is that I “get” to have annual pelvic exams along with an every-other-year mammogram—so far, I’ve had several mammograms, all negative, since transitioning genders in 2009.
For the fifty-two years that I presented as a man, I had no clue about what a woman experiences with a mammogram; after all, there’s no such thing as a “penisgram.”
To undergo a mammogram requires standing half-naked next to a machine that has a narrow, chest-high shelf. As you grab the machine with your right or left hand—depending on which breast—a female technician pulls the breast forward onto the shelf. There can be a lot of manipulation to get the breast properly positioned; eventually, a plastic tray is lowed onto the breast squeezing it tight. This effectively creates a vise that holds the breast in place. The technician then steps away to a console and hits a button.
“Don’t breathe” is the command while the mammography machine whirs and finally clicks.
The vise releases, and you finally get to breathe. However, you’re not done; the tech returns to reposition your other hand/arm and breast for a repeat procedure.
Overall, it’s cold, calculated, and extremely disquieting. Yet, hundreds of millions of women do this every year.
Now the story.
I went for a mammogram on a recent Wednesday morning. Without getting too rich, it’s always a bit challenging given my implants; still, I thought everything went fine.
At 3:51 on that Wednesday afternoon, the mammography center telephoned. The call was totally and completely out of left field.
“Ellen, we need you to return for a follow-up mammogram. When can you come in?”
The words slammed against my brain. Oh crap!
“Why? What did they find?”
“There’s an unexpected density on your left breast. The radiologist wants to take another look at it.”
The call launched a day and a half of my legendary world-class worrying and worst-casing. I woke up at 2:43 on Thursday morning and ran to the end of the earth in my head. Before long—still all in my head—I had revised my will, planned for how certain belongings would be handed off, and calculated how much my two adult daughters might get from my limited assets.
Somehow, despite my worrying, I made it to 8:45 Friday morning when I again stood in front of the mammogram vise—this time, a 3-D version. The tech—trained to deal with “special cases”—repeatedly positioned my left breast into the vice. Once more, I heard the command, “Don’t breathe,” while the contraption did its work.
The tech knew her stuff but didn’t crack a smile the entire time. That was particularly noteworthy when she said, “The radiologist will look at these films and then talk to you.”
To wait for the radiologist, I was led to a room where I was alone with just my gut-churning fears. After a long twenty minutes, instead of the radiologist, another tech came for me; this time, I needed a breast ultrasound.
As I laid flat on a table with my left arm pulled way up over my head, this tech rubbed a nozzle across my left breast and arm pit. After several minutes of deafening silence, the tech asked, “Are you okay with your arm that way?”
I answered: “My arm is fine. But I’m not okay.”
The tech said nothing in response. Not a thing.
A minute later, I heard, “I’m going to take the images to the radiologist, and then he will come in.”
The tech left the room. What remained, sitting beside me, were dread and despair.
A long five minutes passed and then a man—the radiologist—entered. He advised that he would repeat the ultrasound personally. Once again, I had a cold nozzle pressed against my left breast and arm pit while the radiologist remained emotionless.
He shut off the ultrasound and asked, “Do you want to see what we’ve found?”
A part of me wanted to scream, Oh God no!
I pushed out, “Yes.”
Pointing to a black and white image on a computer screen, the radiologist advised, “On Tuesday, we saw this spot.”
I looked and saw a small circle on the outline of my breast.
As he shifted to several different images, the radiologist said, “However, today I don’t see anything.” He then added, “I think you’re fine. Come back in a year.”
I wasn’t at all prepared for good news. The words, “*F**king yes!”, shot out of my mouth. I know, it wasn’t very feminine or “ladylike.”
Still, it was all that I could say after being so vividly reminded of what it means to now finally live as a woman.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug, the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change, speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit www.elliekrug.com where you can also sign-up for her monthly e-newsletter, The Ripple. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.