When Cancer Is Always On Your Mind

Gabriela Pinto
Gabriela Pinto

I contemplate making small talk with the radiologist as she’s pressing the ultrasound wand down on me, but I can’t bring myself to the act of un-biting my lips, the only motion that’s slowed my crying. It started when she began double-checking my family history, as though suspecting there was something sinister, rather than routine, at play. “When did the sensitivity start?” she probes, and I wonder if this is the moment when it changes, when I learn about an inevitability of my body that my mother unsuccessfully fought for too long.

“It didn’t, I’m just…very nervous about it. My mother was diagnosed very young.”

Physical and mental pain are indistinguishable. The heightened sensations of tenderness are excruciating, my insides twisting and being wrenched with every single manual application of pressure from the wand. The contact with my skin, the gliding of warm gel over my skin…the familiar feeling of fainting returns. As the tears stream I recognize there’s absolutely nothing to be so upset about; no diagnosis has been made, no indication of some abnormality has been shown. The radiologist’s blank face disturbs me, as I confront the fact of her training: she’s tasked with remaining calm in all situations, even where issues are prevalent. To keep patients calm enough to keep going. That doesn’t describe me at this point in time, but that’s not her doing.

I cry more as I remind myself, cruelly, that this will forever be a part of my life, this uncertainty about what my body is doing, of how it is responding to me and my lifestyle. I wonder if I’ve fucked it up for good this time, if this will be that stupid irreversible point in my life where I’ll have to separate my experiences into distinct before and afters. I think of when I used to live an organic lifestyle, practice yoga, respect my limits-did I do this, whatever it may be, to myself? Did I cut my own potential through that sweet chase of instant gratification, by treating my body like it wasn’t affected by all of these genetic factors?

I think about how my mother felt when they told her the tumor had grown, and that she had to have one of her breasts removed. What she thought when the tumor came back, when she looked in the mirror and saw, with one breast less, her failing body, dying a little more each day. How did she handle that pain? How could she have borne the weight of knowing she had no control over what her organism was doing to her?

On this table, I resent her for giving me these faulted genetics, for committing me to a lifetime of worrying that, this could be it. I come very close to hating her, as the radiologist pushes down particularly hard on me-then I remember to breathe. It helps, but only temporarily.

Moments like these make me become stupidly spiritual. I wonder if she’s there with me-watching as I endure a process that ended her-but the thought is meaningless. With or without her presence, I’m on that table. I’m crying and trying to hide it, thinking about all of the things I still want to do, reminding myself to breathe while engaging one more destructive thought each time…she can’t help me. When it comes to these things, she couldn’t even help herself. No one could.

I think of all of the shallow thoughts that consume me, seeming so trivial as I’m dealing with an aspect of my existence I cannot control. The thousand diets I’ve tried because I’m so obsessed with my figure; the petty thoughts my reflection draws out in me-what does any of it matter at all? Five pounds lighter wouldn’t save me if something was wrong right now; having the perfect set of tits wouldn’t make them anymore beautiful when they were the source of mutations. I don’t even like them that much, I think. A lifetime of dealing with a part of my body that I’m not even crash hot about.

When she’s finally done and goes to call the doctor, I sit up and wipe the gel from myself. I’m scared to touch myself, as though whatever’s wrong will be affected or spread. I’m still incredibly sore from the very short ordeal, and as the doctor enters, I make little to no effort to conceal myself in the gown.

“Your results are all good”, he says, clearly sensing my internal panic. “But I’d start the mammography soon. Usually it’s ten years prior to when the family member was first diagnosed but, if you had started at 20 that would have been a strange age to have a mammogram. No later than 25 though.”

I thank him, but the relief he’s given me is only partial. These once yearly examinations, whether they’re one minute or ten minutes long-they drive out a fear in me I don’t know how to comprehend. Sitting in the waiting room wondering if I really need to go through with it each time, if maybe I could just leave it for another day; the pressure on my breasts, that feels disproportionately painful to its strength; the wait, for the doctor to confirm the statistical probability that it’s alright.

I spend the rest of the day thinking of her. The insidious thought never goes away: it’s temporary, isn’t it? They told her it would be okay the first time she removed a piece of herself.

I spend the rest of the day trying to distract myself, but all I feel is phantom pressure. Even my bra feels too tight, too close…I try to take deep breaths. At least I got checked. TC mark

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