Sitting in the waiting room before a mammogram is surreal. There you are, stepping in from your ordinary life just to check and see if you have cancer. Cancer is a loaded word. Cancer is the word that always seems to be a harbinger of death, even though in reality that is far from true. Cancer is such a scary word that often in Italy it is simply referred to as un brutto male. Just saying it is taboo.
When I went in for my mammogram screening a month ago, I did not go alone. I went alone in Italy for my first mammogram last year, and I won't ever do that again. I'm not a nervous sort. I'm not a pessimist. I'm not an avoider. Last year I thought it would be like going to the dentist or like getting a pap smear. No fun, but necessary. And over quickly. But the waiting room in Italy was of the worst kind. It was gray and the chairs were metal. The appointments were late. Some of the women were emotional and distraught. Teary eyed even. The mammogram was followed by an ultrasound. Three male doctors were there as I had my ultrasound. They had no idea what my name was. They never even spoke to me directly. I was then sent back to that gray waiting room. A few minutes later I either was told to go home or to come back to a little room. We all know what that little room means.
This year I went to a diagnostic center of a different sort. I sat in the waiting room for my screening surrounded by women. There are no men in this center- no male doctors, nurses, technicians. No men at all. There are flowers everywhere, and there are no bright lights. As I sat there in my pink robe with the other women in pink robes, I really looked around me. Really looked. I usually have my nose in a book or my focus out the window. I can never remember a face. But this was different. I seemed to possess a sudden clarity. There was a woman with red tumbling curls and glasses sitting across from me. She looked to be only a few years older than me. She reminded me of Annie. She was smiling. There was a Texan grandmother to my right. She was perfumed and classy and spoke with a southern drawl. She was wearing expensive jewelry and her face was kind. She looked scared. There was a 30ish Hispanic woman to my left. She was beautiful and wearing a light summer blouse even though it was snowing that day. She couldn't sit still. She was tightly wound and nervous, and flipped through every magazine without seeing a thing.
I don't remember who started talking first. It may have even been me. We soon found ourselves in a common gush of I can't stand this and I'm freaking out. We suddenly were all in the same boat in the same tempest, faced with a common enemy.
It was Annie, with her sweet curls who touched me the most. She was on the phone with her teenage son who was getting ready to take his first driving test. She was laughing and her eyes looked straight at you. I've seen that look before, so when she said to all of us, in the middle of that waiting room, I have cancer, I really wasn't surprised.
As each of us was called back to our mammogram, I found myself saying things I usually think sound stupid and empty, things like Don't worry. It will all be fine. But I was serious. Things would be fine somehow. They had to be.
I wish I would have gotten Annie's number.