Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Waiting Room

When I was 12 years old, my mother died of breast cancer.

It was the 80s, treatment wasn't as immediate or thorough as it is today.  She got sick, then she got better, then she got very sick and died.  I was a mama's girl, and it was exactly as difficult and tragic as it sounds.

Since that time, we've learned so much about cancer in general and specifically breast cancer. We know that when it is diagnosed early and treated aggressively, it is very curable. We know that there are multiple forms of breast cancer that grow in different ways.  And we know that it can be very, very hereditary.

My mother was young to be diagnosed with breast cancer, relatively speaking, which can (but not always) indicate one of the hereditary forms of cancer.  About 10 years ago, her sister was diagnosed.  Having a mother and a maternal aunt that have had breast cancer ups the odds pretty significantly that my sister or I could eventually be diagnosed.

Two years ago, on a trip to a conference for work, I found a lump.

When I felt it, the blood in my veins literally ran cold. I started sweating; my heart started beating crazily. I couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned and thought and worried.  I got up the next day and went on about life. I didn't tell anyone or do anything about it for about three months. I was paralyzed with fear.  When I finally got up the nerve to go to the doctor, I half-expected her to not even be able to feel it--to tell me I was worrying about nothing, that nothing was there.  I'll never forget the look on her face as she, too, felt what I had felt. How she quietly asked the nurse to bring her the ruler, to measure its size.  How they immediately left the room to get me in for a diagnostic mammogram as quickly as possible.  The way she wished me luck as I left.

My mammogram a few days later revealed a very thick, dense area of normal breast tissue. I was relieved in a way I'd never really experienced before. I left with orders to return for yearly scans, despite not being the usual 40 years old (and I am NOT 40 years old...just for the record.).

Fast-forward to this week, when I found myself back in the office, waiting for a diagnostic mammogram (which is different than a screening mammogram; there are extra scans and an ultrasound).  Being spring break, the waiting room was packed with women--literally packed.  I was one of the first in the room, sitting there wrapping my pink gown around me tighter as every seat filled in.

The women around me were a unique group; they immediately began chatting amongst themselves. I'm not unfriendly; I can make small talk as well as anyone. In this particular waiting room, though, I can't relax enough to be chatty. I'm nervous, twitchy.  I can't help it; all I can think about is my mother, and how she must have had a moment in a waiting room just like this one 25+ years ago, where she waited to hear the news.  She probably knew something was wrong, and she sat there, among other women who might have been making small talk, and worried. She waited nervously, I wait nervously.

The women chat on, talking about how "if men had to go through mammograms, they would've invented a machine that doesn't require smashing their boobs". Laughing at their joke, commiserating. I watch the nurses and radiologist take a woman into a consultation room. I wonder if she is getting bad news. My mind is racing tumultuously from all of it, the women and their jokes in stark contrast to the patient in the consultation room. It's almost too much for me to bear. Fortunately, I get called back for my first set of scans.

When I return, one of the women, who works for a doctor in the same building, is talking about cancer. The stages of cancer, specifically.  She tells her neighbor that you want a stage one or two cancer, that a stage four cancer means you might as well say good-bye, it's practically a death sentence. I shudder at her naive words, the insensitivity of the very public comment she made in a waiting room where people are often scared and awaiting news, or even returning for a scan after being treated for cancer. A cancer that, at one time, was one of the stages she is so nonchalantly describing. The cancer that quickly and unnaturally--painfully--took my mother's life when I was young and impressionable. At the age when a girl needs a mother.  I can tell that her words are going to stay with me for a long time, that they'll be a cautionary tale that I will share here, in my own tiny public forum, so that maybe I can spread the word to speak sensitively in places like this. Think carefully before you speak in places like waiting rooms. Use common sense. Be empathetic human beings.

One by one, the ladies are called back for scans, are sent to change into their clothes to go home, with nothing but good news.  They are sad to leave each other, talking about how they can't believe they bonded in a place like a mammogram waiting room. They hug and leave, and my mind reels, trying to understand how they can be jovial and happy in a place like this. I'm alone again, with nothing but my own worry and the echo of their words.

For the first time, a radiologist comes in to do my ultrasound. This worries me; usually a tech does the final scan and sends the images to the radiologist, and then the tech sends me home with a clean bill of health. She scans for quite awhile, but declares that, while the area has grown, it's still just dense normal tissue. She warns me to be vigilant, though, because I have a significant family history and she feels that if I were going to get cancer, it might be in this very spot. She recommends genetic testing/counseling and I leave with the brochure in my hand. Orders to return in twelve months.

This is what the waiting room is like for some of us. Be mindful. Be aware.

Take screening seriously--if you have a family history, you should begin being screened 10 years prior to your family member's diagnosis. Feel your boobies, ladies.