Excerpt from “The Hat That Saved My Life”
by Becky Olson
Chapter 1 – The Diagnosis
Sharon turned off the ignition and we sat together in silence. The gloom of the hospital garage closed in around me. Squealing tires echoed against the cold, gray walls as someone made the turn toward the exit. Lucky for them, they were leaving this horrible place.
I was afraid to move. In my mind I was sitting on the edge of a very high cliff. One move in the wrong direction would plunge me to my death. Somehow if I just stayed planted to the seat, the rest of this would go away. On this day, my life changed forever. On this day, I understood my own mortality and on this day, I asked God, “Why me?”
It started on Wednesday, April 24, 1996, on my way to the appointment, the necessary evil, that my doctor had insisted I attend. I was in a hurry. I made the appointment for 7:30 a.m. so I could make my 9:00 sales call to see the most important client in my portfolio. I had absolutely no time for things like this.
I dressed for the day in everything appropriate for a sales call. I put on everything but my deodorant. I remember the receptionist telling me not to wear deodorant because it would interfere with the procedure. I figured a quick smashing of the breast, a smattering of deodorant, get my shirt and jacket back on and I’d be on my way.
On this day in April, the day I was too busy for the mammogram, I dressed in my best wool-knit, navy blue pantsuit. Three gold buttons adorned the front. My navy blue pumps complimented the suit. I wore the blue, white and gold earrings my 15-year old daughter had given to me on a birthday years before. Beth was my fashion goddess. In her early childhood she had a knack for picking outfits that her friends admired, even before the fashion magazines declared them acceptable. My shoulder length, dark hair was pulled back into a low ponytail and held in place with a navy blue ribbon.
I worked late the night before to prepare myself for my sales appointment. My briefcase was loaded with the information I needed for my customer. I was ready. I just needed to get this stupid mammogram out of the way.
I fought my way through rush hour traffic and heavy rain, cursing the nurse practitioner for forcing me to schedule this appointment.
I arrived for my mammogram just before 7:30 a.m. Always on time, that was my motto. Three other women were in the waiting room when I arrived. “Oh great,” I thought to myself. “I get to wait.”
I sat rather impatiently in the waiting room, checking my watch, mindlessly flipping through magazines in the off chance that I’d find some buried treasured just waiting to be discovered. I waited for someone, anyone, to call my name. They didn’t.
My mind shifted to work.. I was deep in thought about my upcoming sales call, rehearsing my opening remarks over and over again. You can never be too prepared, my second motto. I was just coming in for the kill when I was startled back to reality. I finally heard my name.
If you are under 40, you’ve likely never had a mammogram. There are a few things you should know, the first of which is, no deodorant. Second, the technician will escort you to the dressing room where you strip from the waist up and put on one of those goofy blue hospital gowns, opened in the front. And then you wait.
I went into my own private little dressing room, stripped as instructed and checked my watch. The technician was back within about thirty seconds and the two of us proceeded to the mammography room.
We entered the dimmed room, “How nice, mood lighting,” I thought to myself. The large metal machine hummed and welcomed me like a giant mechanical vise, its arms outstretched as if waiting for a hug.
The technician shut the door. She told me to stand in front of the machine and open my gown. She lifted and pushed parts of my breasts I never knew I had. She positioned my breast “just so” on the machine platform. Then came the torture. She hit the button on the machine and the platforms began to close in on each other. The only thing stopping them from resting firmly against each other was my breast. I was certain the machine would stop its approach any second, but it kept moving. My full breast was suddenly squished as flat as a Frisbee between the platforms. I thought it had been flattened clear into the next room.
“Hold your breath and don’t move,” she said as she stepped behind the plexi-glass barrier.
I took in my final shallow breath through my nose and held very still. “Heaven forbid I should move and have to do this again,” I thought.
The big machine vibrated for a second and I imagined I could hear the sounds of the camera lenses clicking as they created the x-ray. She positioned me several different ways and we repeated the process. Each time I held my breath and each time she stepped behind the clear plastic shield and flipped the switch.
Finally she got all the different angles she needed and I was free to leave this torture chamber. She sent me back to the curtained off dressing room. Now, the wait. I sat in that little room, flipping through the same magazine, still looking for that lost treasure.
Under normal circumstances, if all goes well, the technician will be back shortly and say, “It looks good, go ahead and get dressed.”
Finally she came back and pulled open the curtain. I fully expected to hear the desired message. Instead, I saw a look on her face that told me a different message was about to be delivered.
“The doctor would like some more pictures. Please follow me,” she said coldly.
I put the magazine down, grabbed the front of my gown to hold it shut and followed her back into that room with the hideous machine. I kept thinking all the way, “I’m sure it’s nothing. She probably just messed up.”
We went through the same procedure as before and again I went to my little room and waited. By now I was pretty annoyed, not to mention a little sore. I really didn’t have time to wait for her to get it right. It was close to 9:00 a.m. and calling my customer to tell him I was running late was out of the question. My cell phone wouldn’t work in the room, probably due to interference from all the equipment. So I waited. Again.
I was sure the second set would result in the message I wanted to hear the first time, that everything was fine. This was not the case. She came back a third time and finally a fourth. On the fourth visit to my holding cell, I was told that I had graduated to the ultrasound machine. Now, I was starting to get scared. What I thought was an error on her part was turning into something much worse.
I’d had an ultrasound when I was pregnant. For some reason, looking at that little blob of black and white tissue on the monitor, that somehow they could tell was a baby, was encouraging and exciting. I wasn’t sure what the doctor wanted to look at on the little monitor this time, but I was quite sure it wasn’t a baby.
I entered the ultrasound room and this time instead of standing in front of a machine that would squish my breasts, I was asked to lie down on the gurney. The radiologist put some warm gel on my breast, just like they did on my stomach so many times and years before. He gently slid the wand back and forth over my breast and finally settled on one spot. A few seconds brought clarity to the screen as he continued to look at the monitor.
I didn’t like the expression on his face. I slowly turned my gaze from his face to the screen. My eyes focused on random blobs on the screen. Finally, with much difficulty I saw the monster that the radiologist had been looking at. I suddenly felt transported into a Hollywood movie. I hadn’t seen the movie “Alien” in quite a long time, but I thought I was about to give birth to one. The ultrasound revealed a mass of tissue with tentacles that seemed to reach into my soul. I thought I was looking at some kind of animal. The body was shaped like a sea horse, curved from top to bottom, but the tentacles were like those of a scorpion. My head began to spin and I could barely breathe.
The next words from the radiologist were words I never dreamed of hearing. “I can’t be 100% positive, but I think you have breast cancer.”
He went on to tell me how sorry he was and urged me to make an appointment with a specialist as soon as possible for confirmation. He said he wished he had better news. Me too!
I went out to my car, in shock, in tears and madder than Hell. “How can this happen to me?” Cancer happens to other people and old people. I was only 43, successful and busy. I tried to call my husband on my cell phone, but couldn’t see the numbers on my phone through my tears.
After several attempts to dial I finally got it right. My husband Bill answered the phone. Upon hearing his voice, I suddenly fell apart and cried out loud. He tried to console me but he hadn’t a clue what was going on. He knew I was upset, more so than he had witnessed in a long time.
He was sure I had lost my job. He knew how much I loved my job and knew that anything other than losing it could not possibly cause such an emotional outburst. I don’t remember much, but I do know that I told him that I wish it were that simple. That’s when he knew it was something really bad.
I told him the mammogram revealed probable breast cancer and I needed to see a specialist. I couldn’t believe these words were coming out of my mouth. Though I wasn’t the exercise queen or nutritional guru, I led a fairly active life. I wasn’t really overweight, I was just under height. In my mind I was a thin person trapped in this robust body. Thin yet robust, active people don’t get breast cancer.
After the call to my husband, I called my office and asked one of my coworkers to cancel my appointments. I asked her to call several of my customers and tell them that I had a family emergency and that I would reschedule later when I returned to work.
When I got home from my mammogram appointment, still no deodorant, suddenly I didn’t care. The sales call I had missed suddenly didn’t matter.
I walked into my house, which was dirty and dusty from a major remodel that seemed never to end. The contractor had pulled the roof off the garage that morning and was gearing up to add the 500 sq. foot addition. “Funny,” I thought, “My house is getting a nice upgrade while I’m falling completely apart.”.
I tried to ignore the workers but it was pretty tough when they were walking in and out to use the bathroom.
I made my way to the kitchen, grabbed the phone book and looked up my doctor’s phone number. Shaking, I dialed the phone. The radiologist had already called him so he was expecting my call. He gave me a referral to a specialist. I called the specialist for an appointment. The receptionist answered the phone, “Surgical Oncologists.” I didn’t like the sound of that. It sounded scary and quite official. I told her I needed to see someone right away. She told me their first opening was in two weeks.
I said, “You don’t understand, I don’t wait well. I need to get in now.”
She reconsidered and suddenly found an opening “tomorrow.”
Distraught and confused, my solution was to open a bottle of wine. I don’t actually remember drinking it, but later, when our neighbor came over to talk to my husband about a trip the two had planned for the weekend, he saw the bottle of wine, half gone, and the X-rays lying on the counter
“Bad news?” he asked.
“I believe so,” I responded and poured myself another glass.