A Woman’s Life

My friend Anne has a lump in her breast. She sends me a text when I’m in a meeting: “How about a visit to Frankenstein’s castle?” she asks. She wants me to go with her for the surgery, but the deal is, hospitals don’t set well with me. I don’t like the long halls and seascape art, the clatter of IV poles wobbling across tile, those families sitting glumly at bedsides.

If you’re female and over 40, a good percentage of your life is spent wondering if you’ve got a lump growing somewhere inside your breast. Any day, out of nowhere, there it is. You get those diagrams on self breast exams, how to stand in front of a mirror and look for puckering or changes, how to press your fingers into your breasts and arm pits while you’re taking a shower. There’s a process for checking when you’re lying down too. Then, when you’re not self-examining, you’ve got the mammogram, so cruel and barbaric that machine is, flattening your breast like a grilled cheese. First you put this arm here and that arm there, then you turn your head to the left, now lean back, hold your breath. Yes, just like that. Steady. Ho-o-o-ld it. Perfect. One in eight women will have invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Those greedy little cells will gobble up your insides, taking over your body like they own the place, all while you’re making a presentation at work or trying on shoes at Nordstrom.

At 5:30 a.m. three days later, I pick up Anne at her house. It’s dark and cold, a fall morning. She’s wearing green sweats and tennis shoes, her hair still wet from the shower. Someone going for surgery would look just like she does. Shiny and clean. We drive across the sleeping city and pull into the hospital’s back lot to enter through the outpatient wing. Signs on the walls direct us: Having surgery? This way. Having surgery? Down this hall. Having surgery? Please come in.

The receptionist in the waiting area is disinterested when we approach, but she checks her roster against the computer, and then snaps the ID bracelet on Anne’s wrist. I peek from the corner of my eye at the people in the room. A woman by the door shakes her leg, while her husband watches TV. A small child fusses at their feet. No one’s bothered to open the curtains, even though a hint of sun is forcing its way through. We sit down, and soon a woman in blue scrubs arrives, marching briskly into the room. “Anne?” she calls, looking at no one. What can we do but rise and follow this woman toward the future before us? Down the hall and past the work stations we go (what good soldiers we are!) until we get to the prep room, with its gurney bed, clean and waiting. Anne sits at the foot of the bed while the nurse explains how the morning will go. The anesthesiologist will come in, then the surgeon. Surgery will last about an hour, and then there’ll be two stages of recovery. All visitors who enter Anne’s room must wash their hands, and she has a right to request that they do so. There’s a coffee cart for me, down the elevator and to the left. Anne puts on her gown and lies down. Blood pressure normal. Lungs good. When was your last bowel movement? What time did you eat? Do you have any pain? Here, take this pen and mark an X on your breast, over the spot where the lump is. That’ll help the doctor. Can you make a fist? It’ll burn just a bit once I start the IV.

When the nurse finally wheels Anne out on the gurney, I make her stop so I can get a picture. Anne’s wearing a wrinkled paper scrub hat. She smiles at the camera. “Wait for me, okay?” she says and lifts her hand to give the peace sign.

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