There are many inner sanctums at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, rooms where the air is weighted with anxiety and hope, where the lucky and the unlucky sit side-by-side. I sat in such a room recently, chilly in a thin coral-colored cotton smock, and waited for my annual mammogram. The room was as full as I have ever seen it, with perhaps 17 or more women sitting, most of us clasping the provided meager cloth around our vulnerable breasts.
Some sit with their heads down and never make eye contact. Some flip through old magazines scattered on side tables. Occasionally, there is a knitter. Knitters tend to exude a warmth that invites quiet conversation. But there was no knitter in the room today. There was, however, one woman who was dressed in street clothes. Gray-haired and stylishly dressed, she accompanied a tall, large-boned young woman, an attractive young woman who made me think of a park ranger. The duo sat near me and talked quietly. I could feel riffles of fear in the air bubbles around them, and the quiet efforts of the older woman to contain rising panic.
The younger woman’s name was called. The two exchanged a look, and she was gone. The older woman looked at me for a moment and our eyes met. The mother. I knew immediately that she was the young woman’s mother. And that they had reasons to worry. I moved a seat closer, to be at a more conversational angle. She began to spill her heart out in a quiet, well-modulated voice that only occasionally became ragged. Her own husband had died a long, lingering death from bone cancer two months ago. Her daughter, 35, had gone to another local hospital for a routine mammogram. “Something,” a spot of “something,” was found in her right breast. Her left was said to be fine. Just fine.
The Mayo visit came about because her health insurance program had changed and Mayo was now on her list. It was basically a follow-up to the visit at the other facility for a second opinion and treatment plan. Mayo’s first exam found the growth in her right breast. They also found several spots of “something” in her left breast. In the treatment room, as the mother spoke to me, the daughter was undergoing breast biopsies.
My name was called. Heart heavy, I went for my own routine exam. Like many women, I have “dense” breasts, with lots of cystic tissue, so each year they take lots of pictures before giving me my “no changes” letter and sending me on my way.
I came out to sit and wait while the radiologist reviewed the films to be sure no more pictures would be needed. There never have been before, so I felt like I was in the clear. I saw the young woman sitting with her mother, both of their eyes red and teary. The young woman really looked like she might just start screaming. Her eyes were huge in her large, pale face. A woman with a Mayo I.D. tag was down on her haunches in front of them, one hand on the young woman’s knee, her other hand moving as she reached out to mother and daughter and spoke in rapid, urgent tones. I learned later, she is a late stage breast cancer survivor, and is one of several staffers who come to provide comfort and information to women getting bad news in the inner sanctum.
The woman left, and the mother and daughter looked at me. We looked at one another. No words. Then, the door opened, and my name was called. More pictures. The radiologist was “a little concerned” about one place deep in my right breast tissue. I felt rooted to the floor. The floor itself began to sway.
It’s the first time I ever experienced real pain from a mammogram (and bruises the next day). “I’m sorry,” the beautiful blond technician said,” but she needs me to get as close to the chest wall as I can.”
The two women were still in the waiting room when I emerged. They looked at me. “Are you okay?” the younger one asked. I impulsively took her hand and nodded. “I think so. They wanted a few more pictures.” We sat together, the three of us, solid and close and if we had been sisters all our lives.
Time passed. Slowly. Finally, the door opened, a tech I hadn’t seen before emerged and started walking toward me. All three of us stared at her, hollow-eyed as starving goats. Suddenly (it felt sudden), she brought her right hand from behind her toward the front. It was clutching my letter. My letter saying “no changes” for another year.