I have never been a fan of suspenseful movies, roller coasters, or Halloween. I never understood people who loved that feeling of being afraid, because to me it is the worst feeling in the world. Some things you can’t avoid, though, and this scary room is one of them. If you’re a woman around the same age as me, you have visited a room much like this. Purposely painted in a calming color, this room features outdated magazines on the side tables, neutral, sturdy furniture, and waiting, anxious women.
We are waiting to get our mammograms, or to get our “call back” mammograms. Those are the ones we go back for after we get a cheerful or hasty or deadly serious message on our cell phones that they just need “more pictures”. Our friends tell us this is totally normal, and nothing to worry about, but of course we do. As we sit in those chairs, we can’t help but wonder what it would be like for our daughters to get married without us there. The time goes by, we fill out our forms, and our names are called.
When the technician squeezes us into the machine, she is kind, yet all business, and we appreciate that. She’s got a job to do. But she won’t tell us a thing, and we know that’s part of her job also, but did we just notice her demeanor change after she looked at the pictures? Did the tone in her voice change just a bit and sound now more like pity? We don’t know her, so of course we can’t guess, but we do anyway. She saw something awful, and we picture an empty chair at our son’s graduation, and how horrible that will be for him.
When they send us back to the waiting room instead of out the door, we are dressed in a johnny. Actually, there are two johnnys, one facing front and one facing back, and this is to give us a sense of decorum while we wait, but what it really telegraphs to the room is: they found something. We make a mental note to always be overly kind to any woman dressed like this in the waiting room for the rest of our lives.
We are ushered into the ultrasound room, where the technician seems deadly serious. She takes what seems like hundreds of pictures and she is frowning. She goes over the same area so often that it starts to ache, and we think: that’s it. That’s the cancer that’s going to take my life. We think of our husbands and how they will manage without us. We are told to just relax, and so we seem to. None of the swirling panic in our minds and hearts is visible on the outside, because what good would that do? We wait. We are told that there are areas of concern that they will need to aspirate and/or biopsy. We get dressed, make an appointment for three weeks from now, and hope not to think about what may or may not be a ticking time bomb living inside our bodies.
When we get the call that there is a last minute appointment available, we grab it. We go, and we sit in that same room, and we wait. We know that whatever happens today may change the course of our lives, and we know that either way, it should. If we get good news, we will live better, kinder, more productive lives. We will use our time well, and never watch Real Housewives again. We will appreciate our husbands and children and we will make a difference, and pray more, we promise! If we get bad news, well…we will figure it out, but please God, no.
As the ultrasound technician finds her way around and the doctor gets ready, we know we are at a fork in the road. We listen for a cheerful tone, the word ‘benign’, the successfully aspirated cyst, talk of the future. And this time, we get it. Also, there is tissue removed for biopsy but we are encouraged that it is “probably nothing to worry about”. And so we breathe a sigh of relief of about eighty-nine percent. We look forward to letting the other eleven percent go in about five business days when we get the results. They let us leave to wait in the waiting room for a follow up mammogram just to make sure they got everything they needed.
When we enter, there she is. Another anxious woman dressed in two johnnys. We smile at each other with more empathy than you can imagine between two strangers. But, we both get it. This is the day of the fork in the road, when everything can change. And on that day, in that terrifying room, wearing those ridiculous clothes, we are sisters. She tells her story of receiving her call for a follow-up, and of her insistence that she come down there today and be seen. She had a lumpectomy once before, but her sister had cancer that required chemotherapy and that was just awful to watch. She is determined and fearful and tough.
In that neutral, pleasant, scary room, life can change in an instant, but we really are in it together.