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“Abnormal,” the nurse said over the phone, in a tone at once calm and grave.
“Abnormal?” I asked, for the second or third or tenth time.
“Yes. But this doesn’t mean you have, like, cancer,” she reassured me.
“Oh…um. Good?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” she began carefully, her words measured. “Usually when we see pap smears like this one, it means the patient has also tested positive for HPV, right?”
“Uh, right?” I said. Though she could have said, “also tested positive for rubbing bacon all over their body,” and I would have said the same thing.
“But we just need to be thorough! You know! Make sure you don’t have any pre-cancer cells or anything like that. Just need to take a little biopsy. How does Monday look?”
Monday looked fine. Tuesday looked fine. Tomorrow, tonight, this afternoon, in the next 15 minutes — it all looked fine.
I could clear my schedule for this.
That phone call happened last Wednesday, right after a yoga class. I checked my phone to hear a concerned voice mail: “This is Nurse So-and-So, and Tolly, we need to discuss your pap smear results.”
I called the clinic immediately, left a message. Called back again. Got the same voice mail.
I called a third time, and cried out to the receptionist.
“HELLO?! My name is Tolly Moseley! I got a phone call! Something about my pap smear!”
“Ahhhh. I see,” she said, with the feline zen she probably reserves for frantic calls like these.
She proceeded to put me on hold. Billy Joel confessed to me that he and his compatriots did not, in fact, start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning…
“Ok, Tolly, left me just get confirmation here,” she asked. One must be careful to not confuse all the Tolly’s walking in and out of their establishment, after all.
“Your date of birth?”
“Four…” I began, “seven…” voice quaking, “eighty-two. My birthday is four seven eighty-two,” I whimpered.
“Ahh…there you are! Hold on just one more minute.”
Taylor Dayne this time. Explaining that love would lead me back to her arms. (I was skeptical.)
By the time the right nurse got on the line, I was in full-on, crisis-having, sob-heaving mode. Because what the hell? I’m 30. I’m in yoga teacher training for God’s sake. I don’t get phone calls like that.
She explained the steps necessary to retest me and my problematic cervix, of which I understood exactly none. Something about a vinegar solution, which would light up my cells on a screen, and then they would scrape off a sample and send it away for testing.
“You’re going to LOVE Dr. Smith,” the nurse reassured me. “She’s very gentle.”
“While she scrapes?” I wanted to ask.
“And Tolly, don’t check the Internet. You’ll only freak yourself out.”
Apparently, abnormal pap smears are quite common. At least they are for my mother, her best friend, two of my best friends, and even my ob-gyn herself, who all revealed to me that this had happened to them before. This is the way I process fear, you see: By calling absolutely everyone I know.
This clinic is not far from my house. I have been going there for five years, in and out of different residences, in and out of different health insurances. I was there last week as a matter of fact, getting my annual.
“This is good,” I thought to myself. “Really. It’s good! What have you been learning about in yoga teacher training? Not to get so attached. Including to your own life. This will help you. Whatever the results are. This will strengthen you.”
That was my mind, at least.
My hands, however, were not in compliance. They proceeded to make about 80 wrong turns, including one that looped me right back around on Mopac, as if to carry me home. “You don’t really wanna do this, do you Tolly?” they seemed to be saying. “It’s scary and it’s expensive! Just go back home. There’s still hot coffee in the pot. Pre-cancer, or coffee? This is an easy choice.”
When I pulled into the parking lot, I saw a pregnant woman beaming as she walked back to her car, talking on her cell phone.
“Boy,” she said, with a huge grin.
I did the selfish thing at the elevators. Meaning, I hit the ‘close’ button, the one with the two arrows pointing in toward each other, the one that looks like a butterfly. I’m pretty sure it’s a placebo.
“Oh, hello Tolly,” said the receiving nurse. “You just need to sign this piece of paper for us. Let us know you’re giving us permission for your test today!”
I never read these things carefully, and I should. Because I think the paper said, “this patient authorizes her cervix biopsy.” But it could have also said, “this patient authorizes her likeness to be used on Hello Kitty purses and in brochures detailing the tooth-rotting effects of crystal methamphetamine,” and, you know what? They would have my permission for that.
There was one of those freaky informercials playing on a loop in the waiting room, the kind that looks like an actual news report, until a peach screen with a scripted font from the 80s comes up that says, “thank you for waiting! Your doctor will be with you in one moment.” Then, everything after that just seems like propaganda.
I had a fleeting thought that I wished this were The Hunger Games, and if I was going in for a treatment anyway, couldn’t I just go to sleep and have them wake me up when this was all fixed? Katniss didn’t have a bad cervix, but she was almost eaten by wolf/people/devil hybrids, and the Capital fixed her right up.
“Dr. Smith is ready for you.”
We walked pass the scale at the nurse’s station. “You don’t have to weigh me today?” I asked.
“Oh, no — that’s only for your physical.”
“Score,” I thought. Apparently, the threat of cervical cancer is no match for my vanity.
The nurse explained to me what the cervix looks like, and what they were searching for. I nodded solemnly and asked for some tissues.
“Just hop up on the bed here, and Dr. Smith will be with you in a moment!”
Since we all know that “a moment” at the doctor’s office means “the time it takes you to write a thesis on War and Peace,” I decided to study the available literature inside my room. There were some books perched on a small wall-mounted shelf, including one with sexy, red patent leather high heels on the cover with the title, Seductive Delusions: How Everyday People Catch STD’s. Right next to it: a Dr. Seuss book.
The thing about getting a cervix biopsy is that it’s not surgery. It’s a tiny bit primitive — what with the doctor reaching up inside you and retrieving a sample (to put it politely) — but it doesn’t require anesthesia. Still, when Dr. Smith, who is literally the nicest medical worker ever, arrived in my room, I wanted to ask if I could just be knocked out and woken back up when they had what they needed. But I couldn’t quite get the question out.
“Aw, I cried too when this happened to me, Tolly,” Dr. Smith assured me. “But it just takes five minutes, and you’ll be out of here.” I nodded.
“Also, I’ll be able to tell you about half of your results today. Tell you if the outer part of your cervix looks normal! We’ll send away the biopsy, from the inside of it, off to a lab and know in about a week if that looks normal too.”
The nurse handed me more tissues.
For the next few minutes, here is how the dialogue went between Dr. Smith and I:
“Tolly, can you be a dear and try not to clench?”
“You’re just going to want to go ahead and relax your pelvis muscles as much as possible…”
“Just — that’s good! Relax! Oh, you had it for a second there–”
“Tolly. Please. Please don’t clench.”
Then Dr. Smith looked inside a microscope thing, one that allowed her to get a more intimate view of my body than anyone, and I mean anyone, ever has.
“Well,” she began.
“There’s good news.”
“Oh?” I asked, blowing my nose.
“The outer part of your cervix looks normal!”
I blew it again. “Really?”
“Yes! Your pap smear might have just been over-read. We’ll know in about a week if the inside part is normal too.”
Back at the elevator bank, I waited to go back down to my car. A jocky corporate exec from elsewhere in the building walked up next to me.
“Did it hurt?” he asked. I looked at him in disbelief. How did he…?
“Your tattoo,” he said. “The one on the back of your neck.”
“OH! Oh,” I said. “No, it didn’t hurt at the time. But it hurts a little now.”
“Why is that? I thought you didn’t feel tattoos?” he asked.
“I scratch the back of my neck a lot, and sometimes pull the hairs on the back of my neck out.”
“Oh,” he said, visibly dismayed that he had started this conversation. “Why is that?”
I took a deep breath, and sighed.
“I’m an overly anxious person.”