As some of you know, I had a mastectomy in February, 2012. I lost a breast and some lymph nodes. I was lucky. The cancer that was found was more a pre-cancer, staged at 0 because it was completely contained within the milk ducts of my breast. It’s called DCIS — ductal carcinoma in situ (sy-too). Unfortunately, it was diffuse throughout my breast and a lumpectomy wasn’t going to take care of it. On the plus side, I didn’t have to have radiation or chemo.
So every year, about this time, I have to get a mammogram on my remaining breast. Which invariably stresses me out beyond belief. I’m in a higher risk group for an invasive cancer, now, thanks to the cooties I had in my no-longer-extant breast. Every check-up thus freaks me the *%&# out. I try not to let it get to me, but it does.
There are always a lot of other women at the facility who are going through the same thing. And we all wear hospital gowns that are basically the same color, the same shapeless tent-like form that tie in the front. We all share the commonality of the gown. All kinds of women. All ages, shapes, sizes, colors, backgrounds.
Because breast cancer doesn’t care who you are or where you’re from. It is a great equalizer, and you realize that fact, when you’re sitting in the waiting room as the radiologist goes over the results of your mammogram. All these women — some of whom you might never have given the time of day to before your yearly checkup — become your allies, and for a little while, your best support network. Your best freaking friends.
I met one of my best friends this past week in the waiting room. I liked her immediately because she was wearing boots. Flat-heeled roper boots that looked like she wore them a lot. She must have known I was nervous because she started talking to me. She was very calm and it helped, to chat. One of the volunteers showed up and reminded us all that there was coffee, juice, and snacks if we wanted them. I asked for a margarita and that made everybody laugh. Defused some of the tension that I and others were feeling, because the waiting room in a mammogram facility isn’t full of dancing unicorns and rainbows.
Sixteen years, my new best friend told me. That’s how long it had been since she lost her breast and lymph nodes and every year since she gets checked. She was an old hand at this. Unfazed, it seemed, with the kind of wisdom that comes with living through a hell of a lot more.
She had. She told me that soon after she’d had reconstructive surgery on her breast, she was in a devastating car accident. It broke all kinds of bones from her ribcage to her femurs. All kinds of things broke. She said she was so broken that her doctors didn’t think she’d walk again. She was bedridden for 9 months and then in a wheelchair for a year. But, she said, she knew she’d walk. She had to. She wanted to make sure because one, she was going to live and two, she’d walk because she wanted to raise her young son.
Damn, I thought. That’s why she can sit here in this waiting room with the wisdom of many lifetimes. She’s lived a few.
I asked her about her pain level and she said she’s always in physical pain, but moving around helps. I suggested acupuncture and tai chi, that there were studies that demonstrated both can help with pain management. I do them to help manage my depression and to help me meditate. She may not feel results right away, I said, but it was worth a try. She seemed open to the suggestion. I hope she does it and it helps.
At that point, she got her all clear and she stood and she smiled at me and said that it’ll be okay and then she was gone, following the tech farther into the bowels of the treatment center to check in with her surgeon (same one I had) before she left, another mammogram done, another watermark for her.
I sat for a while, feeling a little calmer, even though I had to have an ultrasound after she left. That’s what happens when you have a history of boobie cooties. Everything is suspect and they poke and prod and examine and screen and analyze and poke and prod some more. But I thought about that woman while I was getting the ultrasound, and what she’d been through and it helped that she’d been so warm and welcoming and shared that bit of herself to a stranger who really needed some reassurance.
She was my best friend, if only for an hour. But I’ll carry her story with me, now, along with mine, and all the others I’m fortunate enough to be privy to. That’s something I’ve learned over the years. We all have stories. And you might think yours don’t matter, or that they’re not exciting or interesting or worth sharing.
You might not see how much your story matters to someone, but in the act of sharing it, you’re giving a gift.
Happy Friday, all. Take care of yourselves and each other. You’re the only you we’ve got.