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How A Breast Exam Cured My Anxiety

Health scares can lead to a brand new perspective.

Jamie Street on Unsplash

Every time I check for it, it’s there.

The chickpea. The grape. The perfectly defined sphere living on the outer edge of my left breast. Invisible, I keep feeling for it at least once daily. It doesn’t go away. Harmless enough to fit under my thumb, yet insidious in its mystery.

The hypochondriac’s nightmare: a tangible marker of maybe-disease. Up until now, I had merely been halfway there – a medium-rare worrier, if you will. That was all over.

I’ll see the gynecologist in January, I think. He’ll let me know it’s nothing. I don’t have time for this now.

I’m a disgusting, sniffling, phlegmy mess, sob-coughing into my boyfriend’s jacket.

“I can’t do it,” I lament. I’m talking about my midterms. I’m also talking about the five upper-level courses I’m taking, along with my part time job and my grad school applications. I’ve had a cold for three weeks, but it sounds like bronchitis. I can’t be sick. I can’t miss school.

I do miss school. The culprit isn’t bronchitis, but anxiety. Dry-heaving, chest-palpitating anxiety, the kind that doesn’t let you get out of bed. Instead, it convinces you that if you do, you’ll drop dead in the middle of the street. It laughs at the thought that you could ever do anything good or productive. It makes you cry and takes away your appetite.

When I want to mention my chickpea situation to my gynecologist, his hand gets there first. I leave his office with an ominous prescription.

“2cm mass, left breast. Please assess.”

I Google the doctor I’m going to see. Breast Cancer Surgeon. I read his reviews. They’re stellar. Should I be excited? Mortified? Honored? How could a doctor have online reviews, like he’s a hip downtown burger joint, with a relaxed kid-friendly atmosphere and gluten-free options?

I became convinced I had done this to myself. I studied too hard, woke up too early, stressed for nothing. I had made myself sick.

On the big day, I sit in the waiting room, frail, my heart pounding. I’m in that horrible middle space where one is hungry but too nervous to eat.

An older woman, sitting in the same gown, gawks at my youth. “You shouldn’t be here,” she stresses. “You’re a child.” And then, louder, “Why do they let children come here?

My name is called.

“Take off your gown.” And it begins. It hurts so much I only realize after the fact (and the three attempts) that I just had a mammogram. As if I’m not trembling enough, and decently uncomfortable with this woman handling me, she tells me never to wear deodorant to this clinic.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. No one told me.” It comes out as a stammer. I’ve never felt like such a loser.

The next room is bright, and the view just gets me. A few minutes later, the most cheerful woman on earth comes in.

She asks me a bunch of questions, and I just keep thinking how nice she is, and how much better I feel already despite that I still know nothing.

She leaves. She comes back with my doctor.

I wanted to brag. I wanted to advocate for all the things I had to live for, like my upcoming graduation, an internship I didn’t know about yet, the students I’d recently started tutoring, the boyfriend anticipating my phone call, the still-fresh grad school acceptance. As if those things would make a difference in diagnosis.

He’s smart, because he doesn’t stop talking, meaning I focus on conversation rather than the real deal. He’s funny. I wonder if he tells these jokes to everyone, and then immediately decide that I wouldn’t even be mad because they work. I’m disarmed. Dare I say… this was kind of fun? (As one of my favourite professors would say during a chat weeks later, a good doctor doesn’t make it weird. And it wasn’t.)

I sit up, and he says, in passing, in passing, “That’s all totally benign, by the way.”

I never sought professional medical help for my anxiety. I stayed home and cried when I needed to, talked to friends about it, and discussed imposter syndrome with my university mentor. To be quite honest, I hadn’t had time to deal with it any more than that. Maybe that wasn’t the best decision, and maybe I should have seen a therapist. But right now I’m sitting naked from the waist up in front of a surgeon and his nurse who know nothing about me except the current state of my breasts, and that’s going to have to cut it. Anyway, it’s more than enough.

“Go home and pretend this never happened. But do come back.” I float out of his office feeling invincible, bearing a false sense of immortality. Maybe, if I diet and exercise and don’t stress out as much as I used to, I can control the result of the next ultrasound in six months. The very idea not just that I can take care of myself, but that I should, has been rooted in me – in all of us – since I can remember. Neurotic is what it is, nonetheless it takes almost a month for me to shake off that sense of intense individualistic purpose. I wonder a lot about how much people blame themselves for getting sick. I know I would, and I definitely hypothetically did in the weeks preceding my diagnosis. But why? Thinking it’s all up to you is why.

Today, my doctor gave me a B. This B was different than the Bs I so dreaded getting at school (so much so that I scowled at the thought of it). It’s a B that means, despite my horror of the last few months, that I am not sick. And so I thank him deeply, not only for not making it weird, or for making jokes, but simply for being a good doctor when I really needed one. 

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