Creative Writing Contest: 2nd place winner – What Will You Do Without It?

In the recent Creative Writing contest fundraiser for Saugeen Memorial Hospital started by Luz-Maria Alvarez-Wilson of Southampton, the panel of judges placed Cynthia Matthews’ submission a close second.

    Luz-Maria Alvarez-Wilson presents a winning prize to Cynthia Matthews 


What Will You Do Without It?
by Cynthia (Cindy) Matthews

Although I have endured the procedure before, this time having my breasts prodded and squeezed during diagnostic imaging leaves me jittery. Two cancelled mammogram appointments because of Covid-19 don’t help. By the time the mammogram is finally rebooked for October, I feel more than a twinge of stage fright deep inside my gut while my half-naked body presses against the mammoth machine. During the ten minute procedure, I coach myself to take periodic deep breaths, a strategy made more Herculean because of the thick face covering I am obligated to wear. The focused breathing feels unnatural as ice-cold paddles flatten my delicate breast tissue. I try to believe that this mammogram will offer the same results as the others before it: benign.

Nothing can prepare you for a phone call from the hospital. I almost skip answering when I see that the number on my phone is calling from Owen Sound, not Walkerton where the mammogram occurred. The female voice on the phone babbles away, trying to reassure me, telling me not to worry. Her voice hitches when she says they need to see my left breast again. That it’s likely nothing. My return appointment is scheduled for less than a week away.

As I hang up, I gulp with trepidation.

Mid-October I’m back in the diagnostic imaging waiting room. The chair where I sit is hard plastic with black mini-armrests. People traffic in and out of the waiting area. Four of us are there, all over sixty, sitting the regulated two metres apart, our masks snuggly pulled over nose, mouth, and chin.

Half an hour drills past while I wait to be rechecked. What’s taking so long? I wonder. Last time they took me five minutes early.

A man with a weathered face and a walker sits to my right. He makes clicking noises with his tongue before pulling his mask down to swill water from the disposable cups on the seat of his walker. I try to not pay attention or stare too long, afraid I might succumb to the droplets pouring from his mouth each time he grunts.

A large woman sits below an elevated shelf where a flat-screen TV perches. Despite the awkward angle of the television, she cranes her neck to take in an episode of The Property Guys. 

A younger woman with flat-ironed blonde hair walks in. She has a confident attitude and a bounce to her step. People working at reception nod at her and some staff even initiate small talk. She doesn’t seem there for a mammogram as she’s wearing a beige sweater dress, not the recommended blouse and slacks. She smells fresh, too, her armpits coated in deodorant, another mammogram no-no.

By this time I’ve been waiting an hour. I’ve already taken two pee breaks caused by frazzled nerves, too much coffee, and diuretics.

Someone in street clothes approaches. Even though she’s wearing a blue medical-grade mask, it’s unclear if she is staff or patient.

“There’s been an upset in mammography,” she says more loudly than necessary, her eyes narrowing. “Are you able to wait?”

An upset? I think.

“How much longer?” I ask.

“At least another half hour, perhaps more. Unless you have plans for lunch, we can still fit you in today. Including the biopsy, should you need one.”

Plans for lunch? During pandemic?

And then it hits me. Biopsy. That’s the first time anyone has mentioned that word.

“I’ll stay. I need to know what’s going on,” I say, glancing at the breast that betrayed me with last week’s abnormal results.

It’s not lost on me that my mammogram was postponed twice. All because of the pandemic. If I’d been screened back in March I might not have to be here now to face the possibility of getting my breast lopped off. My self-absorption is briefly quelled by thoughts of people worse off than I am: those suffering job losses, domestic violence, Covid itself, mental health issues, isolation, economic hardship, all exasperated by the lockdown.

Another Property Guys’ episode comes and goes. I try to while away the time by focusing on centred breathing, counting the time it takes to inhale, then matching my exhales with the same number of beats.

Someone calls my name, the voice so soft and subtle I almost don’t hear, like a ghost beckoning.

I follow the same corridor I’d walked only last week, the week of failed mammograms. Only this time, instead of scooting directly into mammography, I’m directed to change into a gown.

The clerk pulls open a plastic curtain decorated with large pink roses. “No deodorant, right?” she says, her voice split between friendly and stern.

I shake my head.

“Leave your bottoms and shoes on. Gown open at the front. Belongings in the bag.”

The bag is white plastic with a draw string at the top, blue words on the outside warning users to keep the bag from small children. The words Personal Belongings is emblazoned on the front in size 75 font. The same kind of bag my mother’s belongings were placed in before the colonoscopy fourteen years ago that would change the course of her life.

I don’t feel normal. I feel like a patient, an inmate of the hospital.

All this waiting causes feelings of doom and gloom to stand my mind at attention. I try to remind myself that a person’s actions and thoughts are the only things within their agency. But it’s too late. My emotions have a choke-hold on my thoughts. I struggle to keep a lid on my rogue feelings and quash my insatiable urge to fly through the corridors of the hospital screaming at anyone who will listen to how utterly terrified I am.

The words of Marilyn Monroe come flooding in, a quote I once shared during a speech I made in a previous life: ‘I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.’

I trail the clerk into the same mammography room I’d been in the previous week. The technician is new to me. She images my left side, flat panels pancaking the breast tissue as if rolling out pizza dough. Unlike the previous technician, she doesn’t inquire if her actions feel okay or are too much. The discomfort is something I must endure.

The large beige machine whirs and grinds as she alters its position. I can detect my heart thumping beneath the paddles. I’m scared I’ll screw things up by moving or breathing when she orders me to ‘hold it.’

I’m schlepped to another room the size of a closet with walls the colour of baby puke. My belongings sit on the floor next to another virtually armless chair. A former colleague comes to mind, someone dear to me who shared the same first name. I miss her. A few years ago she succumbed to her second battle with breast cancer, that bout more invasive than the first despite the gallons of sweat grass tea, radiation, and chemotherapy drugs pumped into her.

The room where I wait has two doors—one open to the corridor and one closed going who knows where. A portable radio on the floor spills pop music and an occasional weather report into the room, the radio’s tapered aerial accusatorially pointing at the left side of my body.

I hold the wings of my robe closed, clutching the pink edges with tentative fingers. From the corridor, staff members call out lunch plans and inquire if the results of so-and-so’s biopsy are back yet.

Another technician wearing the regulation blue mask introduces herself. She explains that she’s the ultra-sound tech. I follow her past the change room, past mammography, past the waiting room with the man with the walker, to the sonogram room. The entire time she chats me up, her voice light and friendly. And I think how wonderful it is that I am with her and not someone different.

“We’re doing this ultrasound as a precaution,” she tells me.

Is that good news? I wonder.

The technician is a talker. Coaches me on how to properly position myself on the examination bench. How to hold my left arm against my ear so she can get a good look at things. That the gel will feel cold and that she’s sorry about that. That she’ll be concentrating on the tissue in the middle of my breast.

I feel cared for, loved.

I flinch as the wand passes over my nipple, over and over, each pass harder than the first. Despite the slipperiness of the gel between my skin and the wand, there’s resistance, even a level of abrasiveness. My eyes fall to the screen next to me, wavy images wafting into the dimly lit room. Will the screen blow up with rainbows of colour if she finds something wrong? I ask myself.

She explains that this hospital’s radiologist employs a cautious approach. That the earlier mammogram showed abnormality from one angle but not another. Good enough for him to ask me back, she said. He likes to be certain.

I’m suddenly aware of how black and white science likes to be, like a book, open or closed, nothing in between.

And just like that the technician says, “That’s it. You’re free to go. You’re perfectly fine. But the doctor will read what I sent just to be sure.”

I smile behind my mask, a face covering I designed myself. I’m sure the technician can detect the joy sparking from my eyes, the relief I feel after almost becoming a candidate destined to respond to the question … What will you do without it?