Seniors | When is my time? Mammogram scare triggers terminal angst

“It’s probably nothing,” the doctor said on my voicemail.

Those are three words you never want to hear, particularly after a mammogram. If it were nothing, why would the doctor phone? In the past, she would send a brief note, using the self-addressed envelope I left at the lab.


Janet Silver Ghent

I knew it was not “nothing” because I saw “something.” When I looked at the image of my left breast with the mammogram technician, everything looked clear. But I saw something suspicious on the right breast, a spot, kind of like a button. When I asked if it was the nipple, the technician said no.

“The radiologist will look at it,” she said. “You’ll probably hear from your doctor the middle of next week, since Monday’s a holiday and we’re closed.”

I tried to concentrate on vital tasks, but a pre-reunion assignment to write obituaries for Oberlin classmates triggered terminal angst.

Bill, the class president whom we all adored, died of AIDS in 2001.

Liz, a noted children’s software developer, died of complications of leukemia in 2003.

John, 49, had traveled to Vermont because his mother was ailing. The day after her death, he was murdered in a hotel room by a man he had met in a bar.

I had attended the graduation-day wedding of David and Martha, who went into the Peace Corps. He was a writer and editor. She became a nurse practitioner, and they adopted four children. Later they divorced. Not one to brood, Martha entered a seminary, becoming an Episcopal priest at age 57. Eight years later, in 2007, she succumbed to lymphoma. Meanwhile David died in 2005, of cancer.

When is my time? What will do me in? Will I perish by fire, water, sword or beast? Or will it be more insidious?

Five days after the mammogram, a red dot on my iPhone signaled a voicemail, from Anonymous. My doctor had left a worrisome message telling me not to worry. But just to be on the safe side, I needed a more intensive mammogram and an ultrasound.

“It’s probably nothing,” I told my husband, repeating the doctor’s not-so-reassuring words. Then I told my friend Mary. She told Judy, who sent me a “Thinking of you” email. I send those to folks with incurable illnesses.

Was it time to plot the rest of my life? So many unwritten books, so much unfinished business. What should I be doing right now?

I made the follow-up appointment. The earliest I could be seen was the following week. Another week of brooding. I had lived longer than the classmates I was writing about.

I also thought about Nora Ephron, whom I had interviewed three years ago. She died at 71. My age. She knew she was dying and had a whole folder labeled “Exit,” devoted to her final plans. Was it time to create a folder? Would I lose a breast? My hair? My appetite? Would the women in my synagogue’s Caring Committee send over soup? And who would hold my hand when I expired?

I recalled the words delivered at many Jewish funerals: “Life is a journey and death a destination.” I didn’t find them reassuring. I thought of praying, but Judaism teaches that we shouldn’t pray about what is already determined, so I prayed for strength and took long walks.

Returning for the second mammogram, I put on the flimsy gown once again, dropping one sleeve as the technician squished my right breast into a vise. I yelped. Then I held my breath. After the first three pictures, she said she would show them to the radiologist before completing all 20.

Shivering, I slipped my windbreaker over the gown and waited for the technician to return.

“The radiologist says she has all the X-ray information she needs,” she said, “but she wants you to have the ultrasound.”

I gripped the hospital gown and was led to another room where I lay on a table. A different technician put a cool gel on my right breast. She took the images. Then she walked out. I waited.

In the radiologist’s office, I saw the images. It was all a blur to me.

“This looks like fibroadenoma,” the radiologist said, pointing to a shadow. “It’s like a fibroid, but in the breast. Based on my experience, I would say it’s not cancer. But to be on the safe side, we need to keep an eye on it. We’d like you to come back in six months for another mammogram and ultrasound.”

A reprieve. Six months.

I drove home and made soup. For me.


Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].