“The Wait” after a mammogram changes lives

There is something both intimate and mysterious about the waiting area for mammograms. You sit in a relatively small space; chairs close together with a gown tied to cover your nakedness, your normally restrained lady parts flopping free against the scratchy fabric. There are young and old, black and white, grey and blond and even sometimes bald. There are women with coiffed hair and manicured fingers bright with diamonds and women whose gravelly voices erupt around decayed teeth set into a fold of prematurely wrinkled skin. Everyone is equal in “The Wait.”

As you flip mindlessly through the magazines awaiting your turn at the massive machine that minimizes what some might consider their “best asset” into flat pancakes of flesh you can’t help but turn to wonder: Does the young woman across from you have cancer? How awful. Would the elderly woman to your left, hard of hearing and face drooping from a stroke, treat a cancer if she had one? Who is here for a biopsy and who is here because their screen was abnormal? Which lucky women are just showing up and will leave and not be called back for two years? How many lives will change in “The Wait” today?

The TV in the background streams educational content from women who have survived breast cancer and want to tell their stories. Women who are paid to tell their stories. Why more imaging is better. Why more dense breasts are scarier. Why you want more tests. More, more, more.

And always, without exception, at some point in “The Wait,” you turn the question on yourself. Is this one “The One?” All the prior annual, quarterly, six-month studies made normal with more. Is today the day it is more?

That’s uncomfortable. So your mind wanders to others in the room. You begin to wonder if you were forgotten because they keep calling everyone else. New faces sit across from you, to your left, to your right. Then you regret your impatience — maybe they found a new cancer in someone. “The Wait” is not so bad. You are saved from that uncomfortable thought when your name is called in a staccato burst from a weary tech. A pulse of increased heart rate, you stand and follow the nameless stranger who will handle your breasts like luggage thrown into the TSA checkpoint X-ray. Click-click-click. A little tighter. It takes your breath. Click-click-click, tighter still. The pain is fleeting and distracts you from your worry.

That creaky worry that sits in your subconscious all year long and comes to visit today.

They say they will email your results, but that’s not really true. Several days pass — a week. You’re still looking for that email. Then the voice on your answering machine after a long day at work says, “Please call our office to discuss your test results.” Face it. No one makes time to call you for good news.

Shannon Dowler is a family physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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