Sensible hypochondria and the Elvis woman

Last week, just after I got back from holiday, I felt a tiny lump in my armpit—in that strange border between pit and breast. It was spherical and it hurt. For those two reasons I was pretty sure it was nothing to worry about: cancers aren’t usually round (but cysts are) and cancers don’t usually hurt (but swollen glands do).  I had also done a rather gruesome yoga class on Tuesday night that had left me with sore arms and shoulders, so I thought it might be something to do with that.

Nevertheless, off I went to my GP for a referral, then off I went to have an ultrasound. Since my cancer treatment in 2006 this must be the fifth or sixth time I’ve found something suspicious and needed an ultrasound—these are in addition to my yearly mammograms and check-ups. My GP always says that my hypochondria is sensible—that’s obviously a contradiction—but it’s one I enjoy being permitted.

Having an ultrasound is a funny business, surrounded by distinct actions and movements and feelings that I forget from one time to the next. Mostly there is this panicky, sickly worry that there might be something there:

What if I need surgery? Will I have to cancel Chrismas? What if I have to have chemo again? Would I keep going to work this time or take sick leave, now that I have the luxury of tenure? What if it’s incurable? Death scene—don’t go there—fast forward to funeral. What music should play? I’d love Cold Chisel’s ‘Flame Trees’ but is it too cheesy?—perhaps I should have classical?—no, I’ll have ‘Flame Trees’, after all it is my funeral.  I’d better get my will fixed up, and there’s still that unfinished student film in the cupboard—I’ve got to make the soundtrack. Oh rats, I don’t want to die before I’m a grandmother or a professor, hell, even before I’ve had a sabbatical, noooooo…..

Then there’s the inevitable search around the house for the last ultrasound films, so the doctors can compare and contrast. I usually find them under the bed. They have to be dusted off and then carried, flapping in the wind, to Newtown on the bus. When you’re burdened with those big white envelopes that don’t fit into any bag everyone knows where you’re off to. You get smiles from strangers.

On the journey things get out of whack: cars and people and bikes all seem like they’re going at slower speeds than me. Also, colours become dull, almost grey. I sit on the 423 bus and wonder how many of my fellow passengers have cancers they don’t know about, how many of them have diabetes or heart disease, how many might be about to have a stroke, how many of them might have gangrenous legs hidden under their nice slacks… it’s oddly comforting.

In the waiting room at 100 Carillon Avenue, surrounded by people with goiters and gangrene and oxygen masks and in wheelchairs, but mostly people like me who look perfectly healthy, I watch the three receptionists working the phones and the counter. One is only about 20, she’s African-Australian with long cornrows and high black and white patent heels; one is middle-aged, very olive-skinned and pretty; and one is blonde and voluptuous but strangely unattractive—perhaps it’s because of her thick kabuki-style foundation. They juggle the ringing phones, the strutting doctors, the frowning technicians, the freaking-out or exhausted patients: it’s like a dance. Then there’s a sudden lull. The phones stop ringing, the queues disappear. All three of them immediately put their heads down to do paperwork. But the glass doors slide open and in saunters a big woman in three-quarter length cut off jeans, black converse sneakers, a black Lesbians on the Loose tee-shirt. Her hair is peroxided and spiky, she wears studded wristbands. Positioning herself, legs an inverted V and hands held in pistol grips, she intones ‘Hello ladies’ in an Elvis drawl. They all look up and smile as she does a quick dance that says ‘Who do I go to?’ The three of them, laughing, wave their arms and yell ‘Choose me, no, choose me!’ In less than ten seconds she is processed and they’re all back at work.

In the cool darkness of the ultrasound room the technician murmurs, concentrating on her green screen, that my lump is nothing but a bit of scar tissue, maybe a tiny swollen gland, maybe a ‘ridge’. As I step out into the Sydney humidity I’m back in sync with the world—cars travel at their normal speeds and the colours are all sharp again. I dig my sunnies out of my bag, breathe in the fumes and the frangipani, and float across Missenden road to Campos for a quick espresso before going in to work.

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6 Responses to “Sensible hypochondria and the Elvis woman”

  1. elsewhere Says:

    phew!

  2. Stephanie Says:

    *Shiver*. Glad it’s all ok, but sending sympathetic vibes. I love the way you write here about the journey on the bus: that sense of feeling oddly connected and disconnected to humanity and the mundane at the same time.

    I bet that espresso tasted good!

  3. Anne Marie Grgich Says:

    Meredith, I was sitting on needles and pins reading this, toward the end I felt your relief-thanks for sharing… XOXXO Annemarie

  4. genevieve Says:

    I’m a bit daunted at the thought of smiling at a stranger with scans myself. But would send positively charged thoughts their way of course.
    My goodness, I am relieved, but also – this is beautifully written, Meredith.

  5. Beth Says:

    Beautiful. I love the Elvis woman. May all your ultrasounds forever be blessed by her.

  6. naomi Says:

    God, what a great piece of writing – love the Elvis woman, love more that your worries are released and you are free … but what a great piece of writing!

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