Health

Ninety-Five Percent Is Almost One Hundred

No matter how much a doctor reassures you, there's nothing more nerve-wracking than waiting for test results

(Getty Images)

The doctor was 95 percent sure.

At least, that's what she told your partner afterward; you were too loopy from the sedative they'd plipped into a vein in your left hand, the medicine that effaces not only pain but memory, so that the last thing you recall is being wheeled, supine, from the pre-op area through a set of swinging wooden doors.

Or maybe you hallucinated the doors. It was a major Philadelphia hospital, after all, not a Las Vegas saloon. And imagination, especially in the anxiety-laced, Propofol-addled moments before surgery, is some stiff juice.

You do know, because you made your partner document it with a photo, that you did not imagine the poufy sky-blue cap or the hospital gowns—one open to the back, the other to the front—or the pee-in-a-cup test the nurse insisted you take despite 27 years of lesbian monogamy. ("If I'm pregnant," you told her, "you should alert the media.")

You remember the surgeon coming to talk while a physician's assistant made bad puns and struggled to start your IV. "I had a vein, but it kept rolling," he apologized. You looked away but could feel him swabbing your blood with a pad of gauze.

You were on your way home, a bandage taped to your still-numb chest, when your sweetheart reported what the good doctor had said. You made her repeat it.

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Ninety-five percent is almost one hundred. If you were coveting something—a plastic spatula, say, or a sparkly hair band—at the dollar store, you'd be just a nickel short. A nickel. The coin you might not bother to fish from behind the couch cushion, the one barely worth a stoop to pluck it from a dirty sidewalk.

A ninety-five percent chance of good news? You take risks every day with far worse odds. We all do. Where our lives are concerned, we're not so good with numbers. If we were, we'd eat less Chunky Monkey and more fresh kale; we'd worry more about motor vehicle accidents (leading cause of death for children under 19) than abduction by strangers, less about women's deaths from breast cancer (39,620 in 2013) than from heart disease (289,758 that same year).

But that's not how the mind works. We catastrophize small risks; we underestimate real dangers. And when a surgeon in sky-blue scrubs tells your significant other that there is an almost certain likelihood that the thing she just removed from your right breast is a benign fibroadenoma, it's the five percent where you wallow and writhe for the next six days.

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Whole stories unspool in that margin. In one, the surgeon calls, her voice stiff as a fencepost, to say that she was terribly wrong, and then you can't hear another word because your brain is suddenly crackling like a bad radio broadcast. In another scenario, it's a nurse who calls, her tone fluorescently bright, to tell you that the surgeon wants to see you in person, which you know is medical code for "very bad news."

You imagine hearing the words, blood beats between your temples. Malignant. Lobular cancer. Stage II. Stage III. Chemotherapy. Radiation.

You envision the pillowcase, your favorite one with the blue and lavender flowers, furred with clumps of your hair. You imagine your best friend coming over with the electric clippers, the towel spread on the bathroom tile to catch the wisps.

You will not order a wig from the Orthodox women's website, nor from Headcovers Unlimited ("Be empowered. Be yourself."). Sometimes you'll cap your itchy scalp with a Wild Things baseball hat, sometimes with the velveteen scarf you bought decades ago in London. Occasionally, you'll say screw the hats and go bare, but not when your daughter brings home a new friend.

What does it feel like when the red medicine drips into your bloodstream? When the cooler on the front porch fills with Tupperware containers of soup from people you barely know? How many women have you watched grow thin and sallow from the chemo, or swollen from the steroids, or exhausted from the whole ordeal, with shmattes wound around their heads and sweaters bunched over their healing chests and empty space where their eyebrows used to be.

You will join the club: Alexis and Rebecca and Rivka and Carol and the other Carol and Phyllis and Davia and your west-coast friend Char. Those are the ones you can think of immediately, without even trying. Those are the ones who lived.

You imagine saying to the surgeon, "Just take them off." You picture being flat and scarred and safe.

In the interval, this limbo of not-knowing, some people might pray: Let it not be the worst thing. But it occurs to you that whatever this thing is, this clump of cells now being scrutinized in a lab, it already is that thing, and no prayer will alter it. Besides, you don't really believe in God—at least, not in a god who determines who gets cancer and who dodges that runaway train.

Instead, you pray for friends, for fortitude; you pray to not pass out when you get the news from the far side of the doctor's polished desk.

Days crawl by: two, three, four. You drive yourself crazy second-guessing: Has the physician not called because she's waiting to tell you the terrible results in person, at your follow-up appointment, exactly one week post-surgery? Or has she not called because your news is so innocuous, it's fallen to the bottom of her to-do list? Are the lab workers on strike or just excruciatingly slow?

Finally, as you are walking briskly down a city block at 7:45 on Thursday morning, your phone chortles: Dr. J. "It was a benign fibroadenoma," she says. She might as well be saying "birthday cake." You dial your partner, your mother, your best friend and your aunt—giddily and in that order. Your aunt says, "I knew it would be fine." Your partner says, "We are so lucky." When your daughter gets home from school, she hugs you for a very long time.

But here's the thing. Living in that what-if margin for a week has left its mark. You're relieved, but not euphoric, lighter but not exactly laissez-faire. These six days have been a kind of semaphore, flagging the news you tend to want to forget: that each minute is a suspension of certainty far bigger than the shim of five percent. We never really know what's going to happen next, though we step out every day—because what is the alternative?—as if the ground will hold.

Most of the time, it's not the worst scenario: not cancer or tsunami or a coup d'etat. But sometimes, it is. The odds of eventual mortality, for every one of us, are an airtight, unalterable 100 percent. And you came close enough, at least in your vivid imagination, to feel the whoosh of the runaway train, the spray of grit and the engine's rancid breath.

You're OK. For now. Life is provisional. When you breathe—a little deeper each day—the scar rises, pink and slightly tender to the touch.

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