Women say things to each other in breast cancer waiting rooms, things they might not say normally. I’ve decided to start collecting the most interesting of these, minus any tell-tale details that might invade the privacy of my partners in patient-hood.
Here are the first couple:
As I’m checking in with the main breast cancer clinic, the day of all my pre-op tests and consultations, a tall woman stands in line behind me. She sports, not a haircut exactly, but that just-grown-in look that I have begun to associate with those who have just finished chemo. She has a direct, blunt body language, slightly mannish. She wears a loose, button-down broadcloth shirt and chino pants. There’s something slightly off about her clothes, but I can’t pin it down. She does not look like someone who’s given to gushing, but she practically embraces me when I start talking to her.
“I’m cancer free!” she informs me. “I just found out last week.”
She does not seem to be someone like me, someone who will confide her life’s story in the first 20 minutes of acquaintance, and yet her story comes out quickly, in a rush. “I’m so glad I came down here to UCSF. It was worth the drive. I live in Davis. [Two hours away when there’s no traffic]. The doctors here are the best … Radiation … Months of chemo … That was the worst, even worse than the mastectomies … But I’m cancer free! I’ve just got to make an appointment for my next follow up. I can’t believe it! Would you mind if I went before you? I won’t take long … Thanks, thanks so much!”
She walks away with her appointment card. She does not seem like someone who would skip, but she’s practically skipping. “Good luck!” she calls to me as her large frame bobs toward the elevator lobby.
Then, in a rush, I realize what is off about her clothes. That broadcloth shirt isn’t hanging quite right. There are bumps on her chest, but they don’t seem breast-shaped, more like small, pillow-like bolsters on a diagonal, slash marks angling in from each side. I’m not sure what that’s about; I thought “therapeutic” bras were better at breast facsimiles. Or maybe those are her breasts. She’s cancer-free, God bless her, but I suspect she still has some reconstruction in front of her.
Later that afternoon, I sit in the interior waiting room of the breast imaging department, the place you sit after you’ve stripped to the waist and have struggled with the seersucker origami of a mammogram gown. Some of the women here are just doing follow-ups. Some, like me, are there to provide pre-op images for their surgeons.
My daughter is with me, because I didn’t want to impose on friends and relatives who are already going far out of their way for me and will continue to do so in coming weeks and months. We’re near the end of a six-hour marathon, and my kid, who’s been amazingly good for the most part, is beginning to bounce off the walls of the waiting room.
There’s a young-ish woman with light brown hair tied up in a knot who smiles at my daughter’s antics.
“My daughter’s about the same age,” she says. “We used to live in San Francisco. We did when I had my first operation in September 2006, and then my second in November 2006. Then I had chemo. It was terrible. I threw up constantly. Then my daughter started throwing up too. During the whole time I had chemo, my daughter was up every night at 2 a.m., throwing up. The doctors said the tension just got to her. She’s much better now. But she was throwing up for, like, two years.
“We live in Sonora now. It’s calmer there. My daughter’s calmer, too. They make me come down here every six months to get a mammogram. I’m hoping to talk them into doing once a year. Oh, here it’s my turn.”
I watch her disappear into the exam room. Then, I look at my daughter, who is sitting upside down in a waiting room chair, her feet lolling over the back of the chair, her newly bobbed hair just brushing the carpet.
“I hope I don’t have to have chemo,” I think. “And I really hope she doesn’t have sympathetic chemo.”
Who knew that kids could be so stressed out by their mother’s chemo that they could get sick, too?