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‘Don’t freak out, but they found something on your mammogram’

EMILY FLAKE/The Globe and Mail

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Walking down a long hallway, I find myself standing in front of the hospital gift shop. There are pink and blue bears in the window, and I close my eyes, transported back to when I held my youngest child in my arms for the first time.

It was just upstairs, in the maternity ward, and I can almost smell his heavenly baby scent and feel his tiny body curled up on my chest.

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Placing my hand on my heart, I find it's beating double time.

I am twisted with emotions. Sad, scared and wishing there wasn't a magic number in a woman's life where a switch gets flipped. Standing in front of the hospital gift shop, I've just been slammed with something I haven't really thought of before: The baby part of my life is over.

I'm thinking this partly because I'm 41, at the hospital, and for once not about to have a baby; but mostly because there is a new, more frightening door just down the hall that I have to go through.

In contrast to the sweet baby colours of the gift shop, the door I am walking through is a pepto shade of pink. It's my first time at the mammogram clinic and my knees are knocking.

Booking the appointment was a no-brainer. I was finished breastfeeding, over the age of 40, and it was time to check everything out and make sure it was all as it should be. But that doesn't mean I'm not scared out of my mind.

The actual appointment goes quickly, the only pain being a slight twinge when "the flattener" comes down. I strain to get a good look at the huge digital image on the screen, but it's just a mass of lines and blur.

"Don't be surprised if you get asked back," the nurse calls out to my rapidly retreating backside. "It's more likely with first-timers."

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The call back did indeed come, only two days later. I am surprised to hear my doctor's voice on the line. "Don't freak out, but they found something on your mammogram."

Okay …

Half of me is listening to him detail the "suspicious mass" they have found in my left breast, the other half already reaching for Google to type in what he's saying.

"But I don't feel a lump at all." My voice sounds like it's coming from the end of a long hallway. I just don't understand. Do they pick and choose first-time mammograms the way airport security chooses a random sucker for a thorough cavity search?

The doctor tells me not to panic at least 10 times, because he knows that I am. "I see this stuff all the time, trust me," he says. "They'll be calling you in the next few days to set up a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound."

It's Thursday. The new call comes Friday as we are about to walk into the movie theatre.

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For whatever reason, I am fairly calm until that phone call, though I would be a liar to say the stress isn't mounting and Google isn't doing its fair share to scare the life out of me.

The lady is casually chatty on the phone, but when I heard the details of my "second look" and future appointment, I crumple and rush to hang up.

I sit through Brave for two hours with tears streaming down my face.

Just like anyone facing the prospect of cancer, I have a lot to lose. Four precious children rely on me for everything. The idea of them losing me is more terrifying than anything I've ever faced.

By Friday night, my husband has taken away all of my electronics so I can't wake up in the middle of the night and read breast-cancer stories. All I'm left with while waiting days for the appointment is what is going on inside my head. And it isn't good.

The morning of the diagnostic mammogram, I am a mess. Another squash with the flattener, another round of murmuring voices. As I lie on the table for the ultrasound, the lady focuses on the grainy screen and doesn't speak. I lie there terrified, not asking questions.

More waiting for phone calls. By this point I hate my telephone and jump every time it rings. When the test results come back, I'm told it's "probably nothing," but they'd like to do a biopsy to be sure.

Because they can only schedule the biopsy a week later, I resume breathing and hang onto the "probably nothing" like a flotation device after being ditched at sea.

When the doctor performing the biopsy comes in, he takes one look at the screen, puts his hand on top of mine and says: "I've seen a lot of breast cancer. This is not it."

"I'll do the biopsy just to be sure," he adds. "But I have confidence that it's nothing, okay?"

I have tears running down my face, dripping into my ears and onto the pillow.

"Okay." It seems like enough.

Ten minutes later, the biopsy is over and I'm free to go. Back to my kids, back to my life, back to normal. And as I sit here, with my battle scars from a false positive, I have never been more aware of how so many women are not as fortunate.

Shelly Wutke lives in Langley, B.C.

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