The Breast Center where I get my mammograms (and ultrasounds and breast MRI’s) has two waiting rooms. Most women never see the second one or know that it exists. They are directed to go left when they enter the hallway from the reception area, go into the second room on their right, change clothes, have their mammogram, wait until they are told they can leave, and get a letter in the mail several weeks later saying “all was fine, come back next year.”
But there is another waiting room as well, to the right rather than the left, down another hallway. I first discovered and inhabited this secret room maybe 8 years back, when I got a phone several days after my mammogram instead of the expected letter. They needed me to come back, for another view. Microcalcifications, which can be suspicious under certain circumstances and which were the harbinger of my mother’s breast cancer detected a few years earlier, meant more pictures were needed. Then a biopsy, which was thankfully okay.
But I’d been introduced to the other waiting room by then. Where you go if you are recalled for more scans, or when you have a suspicious lump, or (like me now) if you are BRCA+ or otherwise at high risk for breast cancer. I’ve spent a lot of time there, waiting for my mammogram to be read and to be called in for my ultrasound, or for the biopsy room to be ready. And I will likely continue to do so, into the future. Generally only once a year, because the breast MRI machine is in another part of the building, where I go every June.
Not sure what the center employees call the secret, secondary waiting room – but last week, when I was there for my regular December screening appointment, the shaken but chatty woman who sat to my left for a while (never got her name, we’ll call her Alice) called it the “bad” waiting room. She had a point.
And she was very anxious, perhaps contributing to her chattiness. I’ve been there enough that I am fairly blasé about the experience, on the surface at least. I still was feeling some butterflies, wondering if this was the time they would see something bad, or at the very least something that MIGHT be bad and require further examination. This time, happily, was completely fine. No issues, come back in June for my MRI as planned.
But Alice was upset. She’d said, “So, this is the bad waiting room, huh?” when the receptionist had shown her in. And she wanted to talk. I made eye contact and that was all it took. Alice was a fit, chic 60-something woman, with shiny hair and a tattoo on her wrist. She’d had her regular mammogram the week before Christmas and – for the first time ever – gotten a call to come back for more views. “I know false positives are very common. I know it is probably nothing. But I really can’t deal with it being something bad, right now…”
Her husband had just finished radiation treatment for tongue and throat cancer. Her daughter has some mental health issues and hadn’t coped well with her father’s illness. “She was in the hospital for in-patient care for a couple weeks. She’s just getting a bit better now. I didn’t tell her about this appointment. I really need this to be a false alarm.”
Several other women came and left during my tenure in that bad waiting room last week. Most were quietly self-contained, checking their phones or reading a book or magazine, such that their internal feelings remain unknown. But there was another woman, maybe mid to late 50’s, who was obviously distressed. Her frosted blond hair pulled up in a ponytail, she clutched an expensive-looking bag (Kate Spade? Birkin? Not my area of expertise…) and spoke hurriedly into her cell phone, sotto voce. We’ll call her Ann. And though she spoke softly, that is a small room. I couldn’t help but hear every word.
“I came for my regular appointment, like 3 hours ago. And they keep doing more pictures. They seem to be looking at my left breast, over and over. Now they want to do an ultrasound.” She was talking to a woman – maybe a mother or sister or friend – and apparently her husband as well, who was stuck in traffic somewhere. “No, don’t come here now. I don’t know how long I’ll still be here. I’ll see you at the house. I’m just freaking out. This was supposed to be a quick appointment, I was going to be home hours ago…”
Ann was on the phone for a long time, circling back over and over the situation she’d unexpectedly found herself in. I felt my tension ratchet up as I unavoidably overheard her side of the call. I was prepared to talk with her, if it looked like it would help, but she never paused long enough between calls for me to try.
I don’t know the end of their stories that day. Whether they left, like me this time, with an “all-clear and come back for your next regular screening” or if it was the beginning of something more challenging, a biopsy and whatever it might show. I’ve thought of both Ann and Alice several times since then, sending good thoughts their way, whatever they may be dealing with. As well as to the subsequent inhabitants of that bad waiting room…