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It's probably nothing, Melanie thought. To distract her from what brought her here, she examined the room. Melanie could tell that the décor was meant to be soothing and inviting, with smooth, cream-colored walls and an assortment of mid-size pastel paintings at eye level, but the scent of the doctor's office was still too much like that of a hospital, seemed sterile. Other people in the waiting room moved in and out around her in subdued haste. Melanie thought most of them looked tired. There was an air of impatience in the room-like Melanie, most of the other people seemed to be here for brief examinations, and wanted to be finished quickly so they could return to their routines.
Melanie hadn't spoken to anyone but the receptionist since she arrived, but she noticed as people entered and left. One tall, slender man with dark hair had come in, apparently during his lunch hour, to make an appointment with the receptionist. She wondered why he hadn't called to do that, since he was clearly in a hurry and seemed more impatient than most. Most of the other people waiting in the reception area were reading magazines, such as the dark-haired petite woman sitting in a chair across from her. A different woman that Melanie hadn't noticed when she came in, the obvious recipient of bad news, had come out of the examination area walking unsteadily, almost reeling, looking as if she had been crying. Melanie noticed this even though the woman rushed out of the lobby and avoided eye contact with anyone. Melanie was glad that her situation wouldn't be as serious. She was healthy-had been for as long as she could remember. Her best friend Judy expressed annoyance that Melanie was sick so rarely that she didn't even have a regular doctor. But Melanie worked hard for her general state of health. She did what the books and experts advised: worked out regularly, was careful about what she ate, meditated frequently. She was even in the process of finding a new job that might bring her some measure of contentment.
In fact, she couldn't remember a time when things in her life had been this good. She had become engaged to Peter, her longtime boyfriend, two months ago, and they were planning to marry in the fall. It wasn't a perfect life, by any means, but it was better than it had been in a while. Even Judy, who had a tendency to make light of everything, had commented seriously about the changes in Melanie's situation. When Melanie had told her she was quitting her job to look for something else, Judy had said, "You're amazing, Mel. I can't believe you're doing this. I hate my job too, but I could never just quit like that. You're strong. But you've always been strong. Strong wasn't the word Melanie would have chosen, but she did feel confident in herself and her abilities. This reminder, along with Melanie's faith in her own well-being, made her wait less anxious than it could have been.
Peter had been the one to notice the discoloration on her skin; it startled him out of the mood of the intimate moment, and his subsequent agitation destroyed the mood for Melanie as well. Peter described the spot as being the size of the tip of his finger and the color of a blood blister. Melanie had to take his word for it because she couldn't get a good look at it; it was on her back. Still, it seemed so trivial. There wasn't any pain involved or any unusual growth, but it worried Peter enough that she made an appointment to see the doctor. She almost cancelled the appointment several times as she sat in the waiting room-she just hoped the doctor would be matter of fact and wouldn't resent her coming to the office for such a minor concern. Only her love for Peter and the knowledge that this doctor's visit would give him peace of mind kept her in the waiting room.
After a few minutes of waiting, a woman gave Melanie some paperwork to complete. She wrote down her insurance information along with her reason for coming in; then worked her way through the litany of questions. She wasn't sure about some of her answers-when she'd last been to the doctor, for instance. Or whether she had any allergies to medicine. She couldn't think of any, but she wrote a question mark in the space to be safe. Other questions were easier to answer: no, heart conditions weren't a problem for anyone in her family and she wasn't experiencing any dizziness or nausea. In fact, she didn't seem to fit into any of the at-risk categories for serious illness. She knew she was answering these questions right, and she was grateful that she was so careful about her health and didn't have a history of health problems. This seemed like a good sign-it reinforced her belief that she had nothing to be concerned about.
Melanie smiled as she thought about how she and Peter would celebrate the doctor's good news. They were already planning to go out of town for the weekend; Peter wanted to go to an architectural exhibit at a nearby museum. It was a two-hour drive away, so they had decided to make a weekend trip out of it. Peter loved museums, and she loved his sense of wonder about them. Most art pieces couldn't keep Melanie's attention, but Peter could look at exhibits for hours, and while doing so seemed to have a sense of peace that Melanie didn't fully understand. She wished she were more like him in that way, was able to unwind and let go of pressures the way he was able to. Since the exhibit featured several different types of architecture, she knew he would bring a sketch pad. Melanie's smile grew as she thought about Peter's passion for architecture and building. She knew they would spend a lot of time at the museum-so much time that they probably wouldn't have their official celebration until the next day.
Melanie began to wonder how long she'd been waiting. Only fifteen minutes, she saw as she looked at the clock, but it seemed longer. She pulled a small "to-do" chart out of her purse and began assessing what was left on the list. She'd already dropped off another round of resumes, picked up some things from the grocery store, and straightened her living room. The remaining items on the list hadn't been crossed off: appointment with the doctor; pick up take-out food for dinner; pack for the weekend. She could do the packing after dinner, she decided. She was glad the list indicated that her day was almost over; it meant she was one day closer to a weekend away with Peter.
Melanie heard someone call her name and realized she was finally being called back for the examination. Even though it had been some time since Melanie had been to see a doctor, the process seemed familiar. She was taken to an examination room and was asked to take off her shirt. As she was changing clothes, she knew she would have at least ten more minutes of waiting-perhaps more since the waiting room had been so crowded. Melanie took off her shirt and pulled on the loose-fitting gown the doctor's aid had given her. It tied in the back, and as Melanie tied it at her neck she wished there were a mirror in the room. She wanted to try again to look at the blood blister, or whatever it was. She'd tried to see it at home, but its position on her back made the looking difficult. Melanie thought it was most likely just a large freckle-she had a tendency to freckle easily, and she'd spent a lot of time in the sun when she was younger.
After tying the gown, Melanie pulled herself up onto the examining table. This room didn't have any paintings on the wall, pastel or otherwise, and Melanie's search for a magazine was unsuccessful. I should have brought one in here, she thought. She almost wished Peter had come to the appointment with her. He'd offered, but she didn't want to drag him along for a routine doctor's visit. Still, he was a more patient person than she, someone she could always depend on. They could have talked about their weekend plans, or the house he was building, made the wait less tedious. Never mind, she thought, as she studied the pale wavy pattern in the carpet. This will be over soon enough.
The doctor came in exactly ten minutes after she'd been brought to the room, Melanie noticed. After a brief preliminary greeting he didn't say much. She liked that; she didn't like the pressure to make small talk when she just wanted to know if she was healthy or not. After asking her to turn around, the doctor looked at her back for what seemed like a long time. Within a few moments she heard a muffled "Hmm" and wondered what that meant.
"Is everything okay?" she asked.
"Could you move forward about six inches? I want to get a closer look at this."
As she scooted across the examining table, Melanie began to feel apprehensive. It's perfectly light in here, she thought. This doesn't sound good. After another minute of scrutiny, the doctor told her she could put her shirt back on while he waited for her in the next room. Is it cold in here? she wondered once he left the room, as she took off the robe. She looked at the shirt she'd worn that day, thinking that it seemed different as she smoothed it out on the examining table in front of her. She put her arms through the sleeves and pulled it over her head, and then realized she had put it on backward. She took it off once more, slowly, and smoothed it out again on the table. When she was wearing it correctly she went into the adjoining room. Into the breach, she thought. "Doctor, how does the freckle look?"
"It isn't a freckle. It looks like it could be melanoma. We need to schedule a biopsy to make a more specific diagnosis."
Melanoma? Melanie thought. It sounded serious, but her brain felt thick as she tried to remember where she might have heard the term. "What is this? What does this mean?" she asked.
She heard him say, ". . . a form of skin cancer. I can't be sure about this, but from the way it looks . . ." but the rest of the doctor's answer echoed in her mind as random phrases: "could be worse," "wish we'd have caught this sooner," "determine radial and vertical growth." Melanie knew that this information was somehow connected, but she was unable to put the pieces together.  I don't understand, she thought. I'm so healthy. Judy is disgusted by how healthy I am. "How could this have happened? What causes this?"
She clearly heard him reply, "There are several factors: skin type and coloring, for example. There is also an increased probability for those who have had prolonged, unprotected exposure to the sun."
The doctor's last two words reverberated in her head, and Melanie suddenly thought she was feeling dizzy. That's strange, she thought. I don't remember feeling dizzy earlier. She felt the doctor steer her toward a chair and then he said something and was gone. The doctor's comments seemed to take on a dimension of unreality as she tried to process what he had said. Be strong, she thought. You can make some sense of this. There must be some sense in this. After a moment, Melanie wondered where the doctor had gone. She laughed harshly, deciding that he must have gone to treat someone else for skin cancer. Perhaps he has a quota, she thought. No wonder the other woman left the office in tears.
Cancer. Even though the doctor had recommended coming in for some tests to determine the results, Melanie was suddenly sure that she had skin cancer. She remembered her years as a teenager when it was cool to look tan; she and Judy had lain out in the sun together and debated about which one of them had the best tan. Melanie remembered one day they had gone out in the sun for two hours in the morning-and then went out again for a few more hours in the afternoon because they had nothing else to do. They had used a tanning lotion without sunscreen, too-it was actually more like cooking oil. That summer Melanie had the best tan she could remember having; it turned out to be the only summer she had the patience to spend time outside solely to get a tan. Plus, hearing reports about the dangers of the sun's ultra-violet rays made her hesitate, even at seventeen, though her biggest concern then had been about premature wrinkles. The year after the summer of the tan and all the years to follow, Melanie used a self-tanning lotion to get the appearance of a tan, and sunscreen when she was outside for long periods of time. God, she thought. I was just a kid. I shouldn't be punished for wanting to fit in and look good. It was only one summer.
Melanie could tell that she was near tears. Holding them back required effort, so she leaned her head back on the chair and closed her eyes. Be strong, she repeated. This is just one more thing to add to tomorrow's "to-do" list. She had a sudden image in her mind about what might be written on future lists: go in for X-rays; meet with cancer specialists; have chemotherapy treatments. Oh, god, she thought. Am I going to need chemotherapy? Is that a part of this too?
Then the doctor returned along with a woman. "Susan will show you to the front desk and will schedule a time for a biopsy. We need to have you come in as soon as possible." Melanie followed Susan, vaguely remembering her as the woman who had asked her to fill out the preliminary paperwork and later gave her the robe to wear. Melanie observed her as if from a distance, recognizing that she looked sympathetic. You're strong, Melanie thought briefly, as she made an appointment to return the following day. Don't yield. Maybe it isn't as serious as it seems. She closed her eyes in an attempt to ignore this falsehood.
"We'll see you tomorrow, Melanie," Susan said, smiling and handing her an appointment card. The personal touch was nice, but would have been nicer if there wasn't something wrong with me, Melanie thought. She looked at the card with some surprise, wondering how the woman could think she would forget about tomorrow's appointment. Thinking about tomorrow made her think of the items on today's list that remained undone. Maybe Peter could pick up the dinner on the way to her apartment. She wouldn't be able to go out of town this weekend. They would have to cancel their celebration plans. Tucking the card into her purse, she looked at the crowd of people in the waiting room and wondered who would be the next to have his life destroyed. She remembered the other woman who had left the waiting room that morning in distress, and inwardly reeling, she hurried through the lobby, making eye contact with no one.
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