in the waiting room

Nearly 15 years ago, my mom discovered a lump in her armpit. She was 48 years old and had no family history of breast cancer. She’d had regular mammograms, she was healthy, and absolutely none of that mattered. She became a statistic anyway. Eleven years later, I had my first breast cancer scare that resulted in the removal of a lump from my right breast. I was only 24 years old. My second scare came two years later. I still live with that lump inside of me — and the hope that it isn’t a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode.

Now, at age 29, I am by far one of the youngest patients at my breast specialist’s office in our local hospital’s cancer wing. My relationship with this office is one of mixed emotions. I walk in there every six to 12 months (depending on my specialist’s recommendation for a next appointment), and I feel many things.

This is the same office my mom walked into all of those years ago and learned that she had cancer. Cancer which she went on to survive. I think of her first when I walk through those doors and sign in at the front desk. I think of how we laughed and cried as she shaved her head before her first chemo treatment to soften the blow of her inevitable hair loss. I think of the nights when I slept on the floor in her room so that I could walk her to the bathroom when she was too sick to move through the darkness by herself.

After I sit myself down in one of the oversized chairs in the waiting room, my eyes try not to wander as my mind shifts to the other patients sitting beside me. Sometimes, it’s easy to feel their emotions or guess their stories. I’ve watched some come in with giant smiles on their faces, cookies or donuts in hand, hugging the nurses left and right. I’ve also watched those who sit silently in the corner with stacks of large envelopes on their laps. Their latest scans. Their fate. In a way, it reminds me of the waiting room at an RE’s office. Everyone has a struggle. Everyone has a story.

Finally, the nurse calls my name. It takes a while sometimes. My doctor is meticulous, and she will spend hours with a patient if necessary to ensure best possible care. We walk straight to the ultrasound and exam room. As we pass the doctor’s office, I recall the fear I felt sitting in front of that desk on my very first visit. The wonder over whether I would become a statistic, too.

The nurse takes my vitals and leaves me to it. She doesn’t need explain the routine anymore. She simply says, “You know the drill.” I undress from the waist up and place the paper drape around me as I wait for the ultrasound tech to arrive. When she does, we start immediately — scans of the right breast first, and then the left. Photo after photo after photo. The doctor arrives, and we go through the drill again. More photos, more examination of what’s on the screen, and then a physical exam. We go over my history, and my mom’s, in detail. Every. single. time. At long last, when we’ve analyzed every piece of information in front of us, we talk about next steps.

What do I feel at this moment? I used to feel fear. Fear for myself. Fear for my family. Fear for my daughter, after her arrival. I was afraid of the known, the knowledge of what was inside of me. I was also afraid of the unknown and what every lump and bump could become over time. Now, I feel relief. I know that seems strange, but I’ve realized that it’s more comforting to know than not. Many people wonder what lies beneath their skin, while what lies beneath mine is looked at under a microscope.

I’m no longer afraid of breast cancer. I’m aware of it, but I don’t fear it. Knowledge is power — for me, at least — and here is what I know: I know that I’m doing everything that I can to ensure I don’t get breast cancer. I also know that this may not be good enough and that genetics are not necessarily on my side. Yet, taking charge of my own health is something. Even if it doesn’t prevent me from a diagnosis, I feel it will enable me to have better odds. I know that I am lucky to be able to take charge of my own health. I’m fortunate that I have health insurance and an excellent doctor to look after me, because deep down I know that for every one of me, there are thousands of others who are not as lucky.

As I leave the building and walk toward my car, my final feelings pass through me. Relief is still one of them, as my blood pressure settles for the first time in the last few hours. Hope is the other. Hope that my next visit, my next set of scans, will be as uneventful as this one. Hope that when I write about my appointment on Twitter or Facebook, it will remind others to take a moment to do a self exam or schedule a check-up. And hope that the more education and awareness we have, the less this disease will take from all of us in the future.

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