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Life And Death In The Waiting Room

Yan Ling Zhong of Boston waits for a digital mammogram at Tufts Medical Center in Boston in this file photo. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP Images for College of American Pathologists/See, Test and Treat)
Yan Ling Zhong of Boston waits for a digital mammogram at Tufts Medical Center in Boston in this file photo. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP Images for College of American Pathologists/See, Test and Treat)

It's early, but there are 10 women in the waiting room and only eight seats. We take turns offering chairs to each other, a strange ballroom ritual. The room is decorated like a senior center: pastel colors, happy picnic painting, fake flowers. The industrial designer's idea of décor that relaxes, perhaps by boring you into accepting that this is the end of the line.

We're all dressed in bright turquoise hospital wraps. Cloth, not paper. A step up. Still, why can't they give us cozy flannel shirts? It's freezing in here, though we're all shivering and sweating simultaneously, united in our panic. We are the “mammogram callback group,” the ones who got the dreaded phone calls after our annual screening mammograms, saying we need “additional tests.”

It's my third time to get this call. The last one came 15 years ago. My youngest son was in kindergarten then, and I was about the same age as the young brunette sitting next to me, the one who can't stop talking.

“I came in last Saturday,” she says. “The technician was in a hurry. I'm sure they're only calling me in for a diagnostic because she messed up. I really should be grocery shopping. I work during the week and have to do everything else on weekends.”

“Sure,” I say. Her terror causes me to remember the last time I went through this and moved through the steps of diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound, MRI, needle biopsy, lumpectomy.

I was disappearing one melon baller at a time. Thank God I started out as a D cup.

When I'm called in this time, the technician is affable and chatty. We joke about the need for a heated mammogram plate as I'm squished and squashed into place, only I'm not really joking. After it’s over, I head back to the waiting room and sit on my hands until the radiologist reads the results.

The young woman I was talking to goes in next. I recite statistics in my head: Every woman has about a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime.

“The only time you'll stop worrying about whether you're going to be diagnosed with breast cancer is when you've been diagnosed,” my surgeon said after my first lumpectomy, during which a nurse informed me that they'd taken out “a piece the size of a grape.” After my second lumpectomy the nurse told me, “We removed a piece the size of an orange.”

I was disappearing one melon baller at a time. Thank God I started out as a D cup.

I never was afraid of dying, exactly. But the last time I went through the needle biopsy — which makes you feel like a remote-controlled car with that wire through your boob — I imagined chemo and radiation and wigs. I worried about my kids getting through life without me.

Now the kids are out of college and I'm no longer young enough for my death to be tragic. Still, who has time for cancer?

I remind myself that fewer than one in 10 women called back for more tests after a mammogram have the disease.

I worried about my kids getting through life without me.

The young brunette returns from her diagnostic and tells me that this technician was more thorough than the one she had last Saturday. “I'm sure this is a waste of time,” she says, glancing at her watch. “I should get to my son's soccer match.”

“Sure,” I say again.

More women leave for tests. Two more arrive in the waiting room. I'm still waiting for the radiologist. Another woman tells us that she has lost one breast and doesn't care if she loses the other. “At least I'll be even on both sides,” she says, “a carpenter's dream.” We all crack up.

All except the young woman, who can't laugh yet.

Do men have any equivalent ritual?

Another half hour crawls by. Then a nurse appears in the doorway with a couple of charts. One of them is the young woman's.

“We'll need to see you in ultrasound,” she says. “We're backed up. It'll be another hour. You can do it now or reschedule.”

“Now,” the young woman says. “Please.”

The nurse makes a note, then looks at the other chart and calls my name. I raise my hand. “That's me.”

“You?” the nurse says. “You can go. See you next year.”

I jump up from the chair, tempted to flee the room before the nurse can change her mind. I'm afraid it's a mistake. I'm relieved, but guilty, too, because I'm being set free while these other women remain trapped in limbo. And I'm annoyed because the nurse isn't tactful enough to call us into the hallway to tell us our results. That must violate some privacy rule.

Then I remember the terrified young woman and turn around. “You'll be all right,” I say, and press her hand between mine, determined to make her believe it.

It's raining as I head out to the car, a silver beaded curtain falling on the trees by the hospital parking lot. It is impossibly beautiful.

When you face up to your own mortality, you notice things like that, and are grateful that you're still around to see them. As the poet Langston Hughes wrote, “Let life be like music. And death a note unsaid.”

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Holly Robinson Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Holly Robinson is a novelist, journalist and celebrity ghost writer whose newest novel is "Folly Cove." She is also the author of "The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir."

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