I realize this appointment is a result of other women’s tragedies. I feel like an interloper in this waiting room full of nervous silence. Here sit women of every shape and size, color and creed, age and accomplishment. Breast cancer is not picky.
A few men sit here too, looking even more uncomfortable and nervous than the women. They are good men. Their presence attests to this, but it is obvious, as they page through Women’s Day and Family Circle magazines; they do not want to be here.
This is my third visit to this office. Each time I return I hope it will be my last. The first time the doctor’s office called after my routine mammogram to say there was a concern, I was scared but confident it wouldn’t be me. But each time I return to this now familiar waiting room, I become more aware of how easily it could be me. Why not me? As I said, breast cancer is not picky, not picky at all.
One woman sitting across from me has a beautiful head of white hair. She is knitting silently, a half-smile frozen on her face. Her chest is so flat it is almost concave and she wears a vest with a pink ribbon embroidered over the heart. I briefly wonder whether she had breasts the first time she came to this office. A middle-aged black woman sits alone and rubs her eyes. Perhaps she is shoving back tears or maybe she’s just very tired. I seem to be the only person looking around, stealing furtive glances at the patients and their breasts. Periodically, heavy sighs drift across the room. The wait, remarkably short for a medical office, seems interminable, probably more so for some.
The nurse, who looks like a young Cher, opens the door to the waiting room and calls out a name. A heavy set young woman with tattoos on her calves glances anxiously at her husband and hurries to follow her. Everyone else returns to their magazines. The nervous buzz may be silent, but it is palpable. I watch as an elderly couple enter together and approach the receptionist. The wife looks lost and the husband whispers quietly and takes the form the nurse offers. He guides his wife to a chair, settles her in her seat, stowing her cane, and begins filling out the paper work.
Finally Cher calls my name. I follow her through the maze of hallways and she unlocks a tiny dressing room, offering a hunter green cover-up and quizzing me about the deodorant and lotions I wasn’t supposed to use today. I know the rules. She nods and says, “Waist up,” before scurrying off for the next patient. In this office, there is no paper gown or worn out pastel cape. The soft cotton shirt snaps up the front and is fitted at the wrists. I put mine on and find my way to the next waiting room.
This room is cozier. A small refrigerator holds water bottles, and granola bars fill a basket. A window looks out on trees in near bloom. There are more magazine options to choose from and a large flat screen TV spouting a cooking show. The room is full of women wearing the same hunter green cover and avoiding eye contact. No one speaks.
A nurse named “Kristie” comes to collect me for my mammogram, I am relieved to leave this room so full of fearful, nervous souls. No one has touched the granola bars. Kristie is a good fifteen years younger than me, and I can tell she has put on her make up with care this morning. She chatters away cheerfully as she handles my breast and places a sticker “bee-bee” on my nipple. Then she maneuvers my breast into a machine which squishes it to obscene proportions, constantly asking, ‘You okay?” but never waiting for an answer.
She gives the dial one last turn so that my breast is pinned painfully and steps behind her controls calling, “Don’t move!” As if I could. The machine whines and then blips. I wonder how Kristie takes pictures of the knitter with the flat chest. Is there any breast to squish? I sigh gratefully and endure three more squishes.
I am returned to the plush waiting room, still wearing my green smock like everyone else. My breasts feel bruised and violated. I feel a bit smaller. I eye the granola bars. Different nurses arrive and go quietly to collect their women. Sometimes they sit down next to a patient and deliver happy news before leading them back to the changing rooms. And sometimes they quietly explain that the doctor is waiting and gently guide the patient, hand on her arm as if she might be breakable.
Kristie returns for me and says, “You’re all finished,” before directing me back to my changing cubby where she explains that everything looked fine and I don’t have to return for an entire year. This time there is no “probably” before the word “benign” on my report. The doctor, or Kristie, has written “normal” on the final diagnosis.
I’ve never been so relieved to be normal. I wait for Cher to escort me out and leave with my head down, guilty that I am fine.