As I start planning my next mammogram, I have found myself reflecting on last year’s mammogram appointment. If you want a good dose of sisterhood and to feel the power of feminist strength and support from a large group of women, you should sit in the Cleveland Clinic Breast Center waiting room someday.
I recall last November, thinking how annoying it was to have to come in for my second mammogram that year. It was such an inconvenience for me to take time off from my job, just to return back to the office to deal with all the work piling up. As I sat in the waiting room in between exams, I started feeling anxious and nervous, thinking of how swollen my boobs would be afterwards from being flattened like pancakes.
While I sat there feeling bad for myself, I heard a woman enter the waiting room exclaiming, “I’m so tired of this place. Every time I come here, I get worse news.” The rest of us in the waiting room stopped what we were doing and looked over at her as she slumped down in a chair in front of me. With sad eyes, she stared back at us. We are all stunned. No one knew what to say. I held my breath with anticipation as we waited to hear what was wrong. She broke the silence with her frustration. “They found two more lumps today, and I’m already going into surgery tomorrow for another lump!” With tears forming in her eyes, she continued. “As soon as I leave here, I have to go to a meeting to learn about chemo treatments for two hours. I’ve been to sixteen doctors in the past two weeks. I’m so over this and just ready to get it done.”
The woman saw the pity in our eyes as we desperately tried to find the right words to say. Suddenly, I felt like a complete idiot for worrying about my small sacrifice, a few moments of pain and soreness compared to what this woman was going through. As she shook her head, which was now resting in the palm of her hand, tears started rolling down her cheeks. I caught myself staring at her with my mouth wide open and quickly realized that shock was not the right expression to have on my face. I tried to relax my jaw as my mind started swirling with words that would bring her comfort, though nothing seemed appropriate. Finally, I blurted out, “Wow. That’s crazy!” What?! Why would I say something so stupid?! How could I be so insensitive?!
Finally, another woman came to the rescue and said, “These are great doctors. I’m positive you are at the right place.” With her words, the tension in the room relaxed a bit.
The teary-eyed woman proceeded to tell us that her husband and son were all going to go out with her and her girlfriends afterwards to help cheer her up and get her mind off the “C word” for just a few moments. Suddenly, a nurse called the woman over to her. The nurse was close enough for me to hear every word. “The doctors are going to act on this very quickly,” the nurse said with a smile that was hiding her fear. “They are moving their schedule around for you so that you can be in surgery first thing in the morning.”
The woman grabbed the nurse and gave her a big hug. As she clung to the nurse, she said, “Thank you for everything.” As she wiped away more tears, the nurse responded, “You’ll be fine. Have a Merry Christmas.”
As the woman walked slowly toward the door, she turned around looked at all of us and said, “Good luck, ladies.” One of the women replied, “I’ll pray for you.” Another replied, “You’ll be fine.” After clearing my throat and wiping away my tears, I finally spoke up with a hopeful tone, “Good luck to you too.”
After the woman left, I couldn’t stop thinking about her and what the next few hours, days, weeks, or even what Christmas would be like for her. What if this was her last Christmas? My eyes blurred with my tears as I put myself in her situation–feeling her pain, fear, anxiety, and the trauma she would experience recovering from the surgery (and hopefully recovering from beating breast cancer). Would she have enough strength to carry on and fight after her surgery?
I looked up at the other women in the waiting room. Any of us could end up like that woman. We were all getting tested. Some of us would be fine, but some of us might get bad news. A few minutes later, one of the other women in the waiting room finished up her test and started walking with a calm look on her face towards the door. She looked over at us and wished us all another “good luck.” In that sequence, I was reminded of how fragile life could be. I suddenly realized I was fortunate to have the luxury of being annoyed that I had to get these mammograms.
Yes, my exams were always routine, and yes, my results had always turned out benign. But these other women might not be as lucky. Their outcome could be worse. In that moment, I felt like I knew these women. It was as if we were bonded after experiencing this woman’s story. I could feel the extraordinary power and strength of all of us sitting together in that waiting room as we waited to hear what our fate would be. As we all met each other’s eyes with smiles, deep down I knew we were all hiding hopelessness and fear. Any one of us could be the teary-eyed woman facing surgery and a long recovery.
Last year’s waiting room experience has taught me a lot about how to lean on others for strength and support and in turn, step up for the sake of others—even strangers– in their most desperate times. The scared, desperate woman I met in the waiting room last year needed the support of a sisterhood. Total strangers in the waiting room stepped up to the task without blinking an eye, as if they were her tribe. They knew the right words to say to this woman, and they were willing to offer a total stranger support without thinking twice, because she was one of us. That is what true courage and strength look like. Without missing a beat, these women encouraged their fellow sister to face another day.
I wonder what this year’s waiting room experience will be like. Will someone else be facing their fears and looking for a sisterhood to lean on? I’ve promised myself that this time, I will have the courage to help my fellow sister rise up and face their fears. After all, there’s power in numbers. We’re better together.