October 14th, 2010
09:09 AM ET
This week, Amanda Enayati shares the milestones of a life-altering journey that began the day she learned she had late-stage breast cancer more than three years ago.
A few weeks later, I went back to Stanford to get an ultrasound on the lump that my oncologist had found—now officially known as “eight inches from the left nipple at one o’clock.”
I arrived at 1:30 and waited about a half-hour until I was ushered into a tiny waiting area and told to go into a closet of a dressing room to change out of my shirt and bra, and into the hospital gown. I opened my mouth to protest the gown but decided to pick my battles. I stepped in and changed into a forlorn white cotton shirt-thing with a smattering of tiny pink and green flowers and a handful of bedraggled white strings hanging off of it. Does anyone truly know how to tie these things? And is it really necessary for them to be so hideous? I felt like the indignity of having to wait around like cattle only to go in to get your boob squished for the better part of an hour was bad enough without having to don a costume that makes you look like a refugee from Camp Fashion Faux-pas, Class of 1974.
I changed into the gown, scowled at my reflection in the mirror and walked back out. The waiting area, barely the size of a bathroom, was crammed with six or seven chairs with women sitting in all but one of them. I took the empty seat and pulled out my collection of 2008 O. Henry award-winning short stories. Except I couldn’t focus and so I began checking out the competition out of the corner of my eyes. Youngish—every last one—and this one woman, who was just straight up young, no “ish” about it. All of them there because someone somewhere felt something suspicious in their breasts. I thought to myself that this was all kinds of vile.
My natural-born instinct in any given circumstance is to start a conversation with one or more people. I don’t know how to keep my mouth shut. I know it’s genetic because my aunt from Holland—who seems in many ways like my older alter ego—is exactly the same way. But sometimes, like when people are stressed and tense, they may want to just be left alone with their thoughts. I like to think that I’m sensitive to this and so on the ride over I had expressly forbidden myself from saying a word to anyone in the waiting room.
A thought bubbled up. I opened my mouth to express it and then I thought: “Zip it!”
But it was so profound and maybe … “Zip it!”
And this one woman had a mighty interesting leather satchel … “Zip!” I commanded myself.
I bit down hard on my lower lip and tried to get back into the first short story by writer Ha Jin—something about an Asian composer and his Indian actress girlfriend and a parakeet. It seemed like I was reading the same paragraph over and over again. And then all of a sudden I was half a page down and I had no idea what just happened in the story. I gave up and shut the book.
I looked at my phone. I had been waiting an hour. It was now 2:30 and I would have to leave no later than 3:15 or 3:30 to go pick up my boy at his preschool.
The pace with which they were calling the women began to pick up. At one point, a dark-haired woman in a lab coat came out and separately asked two of the waiting women to step into the examination room so she could give them an “update on their scans.” As each woman got up to follow her into the room which was maybe 10 feet away, I felt my heart speeding up as I remembered the day I got that news by telephone.
I wondered what Lab Coat was telling each of these two women.
Were they going to go home back to their routines, to make dinner, watch TV and go to bed—this being just another medical test they took one day and then moved on with the rest of their lives?
Or would one of their lives be irrevocably changed as of this minute, this second, and never ever again be the way that it was. Would this moment be the instant of this woman’s rebirth as a person who was diagnosed with or faced or battled or survived or succumbed to cancer? Would this woman be mourned? Or would she be hailed as a hero, a survivor?
I couldn’t stand it anymore and so the next time Lab Coat came to get another person for her appointment, I complained that I had been waiting too long. She promised that I had not been forgotten. That I was next on the list. That she would go check to see what was happening.
Sure enough, a woman called out my name in less than five minutes. It was the radiology specialist who had seen me the last time—more than a year ago. Back then, she knewthat I had refused to take another mammogram and that insurance companies won’t pay for diagnostic ultrasounds. And so she stood there with that wand in hand and rooted around my breast for a long time, covering every last millimeter, to make sure there was nothing suspicious. Doing an illicit diagnostic ultrasound, a small act of rebellion—the insurance company be damned.
I loved this woman. And she clearly remembered me from a year ago.
We hugged like long-lost friends. We went into the darkened room. She asked me what I had been up to. I told her and then asked her the same question. She said she had started a course of study and was considering a new career in health and fitness. She was excited about it. I was happy for her. She was such a people person. You will be fantastic in whatever you do, I said, but why the career change?
She shrugged. “I’m tired of it. I’m tired of rooting around 10 to 12 hours a day looking for cancer. And finding it.”
I didn’t know what to say and so I just nodded. She went on:
“I can’t keep my emotions out of it and it’s breaking my heart. Every week I get emotionally invested in another person. So many of them so young. I had a 26-year old-on the table last week with her 11-month-old baby waiting for her at home. The mass was huge. It was obscene. And the lymph nodes, they looked messed up. I just couldn’t take it. I have to do something else. Something where I’m actually trying to lead people in a healthy direction. The opposite of this. You know?”
I nodded again. I felt myself going numb. It was too much, all this.
She ran the wand back and forth for a long time as we continued to chat. It was painful at times but I ignored the discomfort and focused on her and our conversation.
“Maybe there was something there when you saw your doctor. But not now. There’s nothing there. I can’t see a thing,” she said to me as she wiped down the wand with some sanitizer.
And I replied: “I didn’t think there would be.”
Amanda Enayati’s work has appeared in Salon, the Washington Post, Detroit News, and "Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora" (University of Arkansas Press). You can follow her on Twitter @AmandaEnayati or her daily blog, practicalmagicforbeginners.com.
About this blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.