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A worrying visit to the doctor

In this extract from Shormistha Mukherjee's memoir,  the writer describes how she discovers that all is not well

A visit to the doctor turned into a frightening experience (Representational Image)
A visit to the doctor turned into a frightening experience (Representational Image) (Pexels)

I look at the people around. No one is really making eye contact. I’m dying to jump up and tell the lady at the reception to move it and show some speed, but instead I check my mail. 

Anirban arrives. I grumble and tell him it’s taking ages. He’s looking at the walls as well, and is quiet. 

It’s difficult to describe what it felt like. I think it was an out-of-body experience. One day you are grinning and making plans, and the next day you are sitting in a room filled with posters on breast cancer. How is your brain supposed to process that? 

And you have no symptoms, you eat right, you exercise, you love what you do. You have no reason to ever imagine you would be sitting here.

But there we were, looking into our phones. Unsure, a little worried, but not being able to say anything.

They call my name.

And a lady nurse tells me they’ll do my mammography first, and then the sonography. I couldn’t care less. They could do it in any combination they want and even throw in an autobiography, as long as they let me out quickly.

I follow her to a freezing room, where there is a big machine. The nurse asks me to take off my T-shirt and bra. 

The cover of the book
The cover of the book (Special Arrangement)

I, of course, have worn my nicest bra.

Yep, that’s what I always do. First, I love bras. Second, they cost the earth. I have no idea why a piece of cloth and some lace and some wire could cost a fancy meal for two. But they do. And third, when there is a chance that you will take off your top, you must be wearing your best bra. Even if it is only for a nurse who is blinking at the neon bra you are now flashing.

Once the clothes are off, I am made to stand next to the machine. And the nurse, with this most matter-of-fact manner, takes one of my boobs and lifts it and squishes and wrestles with it. I’m watching, equally aghast and amused.

I mean, what does she fill in the job description paragraph? Anyway, after much manoeuvring and squishing and lifting and muttering from the nurse, my boob is pressed against two plates. The two plates are stuck together really, really tight. It’s worse than standing in the Mumbai local during rush hour. And of course, you are standing rather awkwardly, glued to the machine, one boob clamped, not allowed to move even an inch. At this point, I am thankful that I don’t have a paunch. I don’t know why, but I would have freaked out if my boob and my tummy had felt cold metal.

Anyway, after some ten minutes, she repeats the whole operation with my other boob. By now, I’m used to the grind. Yep, it’s literally that. A grinder for your boobs. 

The nurse is pretty happy and chatty and tells me I’m the first person who hasn’t complained and has grinned through the boob grinder. I, of course, don’t tell her I have a manic grinning problem. And it’s hurting so bad that there are bells going off in my head.

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Another ten minutes and we are done. She tells me I can wear my clothes and come out.

Now I’m amused. And I am dying to tell everyone how ridiculously funny her job is. 

I come out, and the lady in the reception tells me that I need to go to the waiting room outside the doctor’s office. There’s a patient inside, and then it’s my turn. I’m positively happy now. I have a funny story, and things have picked up speed.

Anirban and I go and sit in the waiting room. It has sofas and armchairs. And very thin walls. I can hear the doctor talking inside. And suddenly I feel that familiar ball of fear starting to unfurl in my tummy. I gulp it down.

A lady comes out, and the doctor calls my name.

I step into a dark room. There’s a large monitor with some X-ray-like images. Possibly of my mammogram. And another large monitor in front of which sits an assistant, who is busy typing something.

The doctor smiles at me, and says, ‘Hello Shormistha, let’s get started.’

Shormistha Mukherjee
Shormistha Mukherjee (Special Arrangement)

The nurse ushers me into a small changing room. I take off the T-shirt and the bra for the second time, clutch the sheet she gives me, and proceed to go out and lie on the narrow bed, right next to the sonography machine. The doctor rolls up on her stool, chats with me about how old I am and what symptoms I have. I start telling her everything I told the gynaec.

I am subdued now. It’s like being in a giant exam hall, and your whole life will depend on this one viva question. Suddenly you worry that you are unprepared. For even the easiest question.

She’s put the jelly on my breast, the left one, the one that has the lump. My arm is over my head. She’s moving a joystick-like thing all over. And it’s hurting. I’m gritting my teeth as I hear her talk to the assistant. Something about a cyst at 11 o’clock. And slowly I start to exhale. This is familiar stuff. It’ll be over in no time. I’ve heard those words before.

Just then she slows down. And moves the joystick over a spot again. And again.

And mutters to herself, ‘That’s peculiar.’ 
And in that instant, I know.

Don’t ask me how I knew. But the words and her tone, the signs that I had been ignoring, and the gynaec’s expression on seeing my nipple, everything just whirled and clicked in a second. And I knew this was not going to be good.

But I was calm. Again, don’t ask me how. I watched her continue the examination as she kept speaking to her assistant.

She put away the joystick. I could tell from her face. I wiped the jelly off, and she asked me to go and wear my clothes.

I calmly wore my bra and T-shirt. And stepped out and asked her, ‘Should I call my husband in?’

She said yes.

That was it. They opened the door to call him, and he walked in. His face was still. Like he had been holding his breath.

We both looked at each other. The doctor asked us to sit. Him on a round stool, me on the edge of the bed that she had examined me on.

I don’t remember her exact words because I felt like I was in a tunnel. Getting sucked into it fast. But I was breathing, and I knew she was looking at him and saying, ‘It doesn’t look good, and we should get a biopsy done.’

Both of us looked at each other again. We had no idea what to do, how to react. My mind was moving in slow motion. Everything was very clear, but happening very slowly. She understood. She’s probably seen patients go into that kind of shock. Where you just can’t comprehend what is being said.

She made the decision for us, saying, ‘Let me speak to your gynaec. I could do the biopsy here in the next two days. Or maybe she’ll want to speak to you.’

We both sat there, in the dark, with the glow of the monitor falling on our faces. Very silent. While she called the doctor and told her that the result didn’t look good, she was worried and I needed a biopsy.

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The gynaec told her to send us back to her.

The doctor looked at us and very gently said, ‘I am so sorry. Your gynaec has asked you to meet her immediately.’

We nodded, said thank you, took the file she handed us, and walked out. Into the bright waiting room. I walked over to where my shoes were, Anirban by my side. And I looked at him.

And burst into tears.

He held me. I could feel that he was crying as well. And we both just stood there, holding on for dear life as we let the news wash over us.

Excerpted with permission from Cancer, You Picked the Wrong Girl: A True Story by Shormistha Mukherjee published by HarperCollins Publishers India

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