Today I calculated statistics in my head, worked them like a mantra while I looked around a room filled with women in hospital gowns. We sat around the walls, a square coffee table in the centre, and surreptitiously eyed each other over the fake flowers and the pamphlets.
Just before Christmas I went for my first mammogram (because I’ve reached the age where mammograms are considered necessary, not because I had any concerns). I’d forgotten all about it until, five days ago, I received a phone call telling me that I needed to come in for further tests.
The woman on the phone was friendly and calm and told me not to be alarmed. The chances were it was all fine, there was just some density in the scan that needed to be checked. This morning at 7.30 I had to be across town at the large BreastScreen Qld centre in Chermside*. I took off my shirt and bra and put on the faded gown and went to wait with the other women who had also been called in because their scans showed abnormalities.
There were at least fifteen of us in the room and I pressed each face, exposed throat and V of chest into my memory like flowers. We’d been given a handout to read and, while it helped answer questions, it didn’t allay my fears. The handout said that about 7 per cent of people who go for mammograms get called back for these additional tests (I’d thought it would be more), of this 7 per cent, only 10 per cent of us will have something to worry about. The spectre of breast cancer is of course in the backs of all our minds.
I stared at these women – mothers, sisters, lovers, daughters, friends – and realised that, if the stats were right, then at least one of us would leave the room with bad news. I was the youngest one there and I felt a surge of relief that it probably wouldn’t be me. But then I looked at the lines on the faces and the worry in the eyes and regretted my selfish response. I wanted today to be a good news day for all of us. I wanted each woman to leave with a lightness in her step and the knowledge that she was healthy.
The doctors and nurses were warm, efficient and understanding. The volunteer at the front desk brought cups of tea and comfort. A couple of the women talked to each other. The rest of us read our books or magazines and tried to smile when we caught each others’ eyes. I spent two hours there and saw six different specialists. Each time I came back to the waiting room I tried to gauge the news the others had received but most eyes stayed down.
I am one of the lucky ones. I left with a sore breast, a big smile and a light heart. The shading of concern in my scan was just a cyst. A surgeon inserted a needle and drained it. (I asked to see what came out and rather wish I hadn’t!) I know my breasts are healthy after a physical examination, two ultrasounds, a further mammogram and the draining procedure. I don’t need to go back for another two years unless I have concerns or experience any changes.
But the chances are that at least one of the women who smiled at me in that waiting room won’t be so lucky. So, while I feel great relief and gratitude for myself, I am sending my thoughts to those other women. Mothers, grandmothers, lovers, colleagues, friends, I hope that if your news was bad today, that it was caught early. I hope that you’ll be treated and will regain your strength and spirit and that you’ll laugh and love for many years more.
* Something else to be grateful for: that I live in a country where there is superb, free care provided to people who need it. I saw six professionals today and underwent several expensive procedures and didn’t have to pay a cent. Thank you Australia.