It’s a bit unnerving, the waiting room: a small square box rimmed with chairs and a single wide opening to the hallway in the busy medical clinic. Its tight quarters and lack of privacy are made worse by the fact that I am naked from the waist up, save for a loose, untied-at-the-back, light blue hospital gown. I’m not particularly uptight about this sort of thing, or about doctors, hospitals, blood draws, peeing in cups, or having assorted strangers in lab coats peer into and around and about my entire body. But let’s face it: for me and the four other women sitting with me, to the world going by we might as well all be holding big signs saying, “I AM OVER 40 YEARS OLD AND AM WAITING TO HAVE MY BOOBS COMPRESSED INTO CREPES TO BE CHECKED FOR CANCER.” You know? TMI.

The two “youngest” waiting there, me and another woman, who mentions to the air that this is her first mammogram, sit and read our iPhones, sometimes glancing up to see if the nurse is finally going to call one of our names to go back to the machine room. A very overweight black woman who smiles a lot sits down with some effort, hauling a big purse, some magazines, and a briefcase. She pulls out an iPad, and her name is called almost immediately after. She laughs and huffs with her stuff down the hall, gown not covering her back at all. Another woman looks to be in her late 50s, grayed-out – long, thin grayed hair, gray skin, gray eyes, sort of thin and ghostly. She reads a book. The fourth woman walks in with a cane and wears big clunky walking shoes. She’s well into her 80s, a little shaky, but smiles at me when I catch her eye. She sits and just waits.

A lone man walks in, tall, white-haired, in a brown bomber jacket, and takes a seat. I feel slightly bad for him. Guys are guys, but it would definitely be bizarre to check out any woman waiting to get a mammogram. I think. Maybe he had a worse test to do.

When it’s my turn, I’m relieved to be getting it done with. I go every year, like I should, and am grateful to have health insurance that pays for it. I’m not afraid of the discomfort of the procedure – it’s not all that bad, and it doesn’t last for more than a few seconds – but it’s not exactly Happy Fun Time. The technicians always know how to make quiet small talk while handling you, placing you awkwardly in the mam smasher, lifting your breasts and arms here and there. For me, it just helps to chat back and definitely not watch the vise action. The resulting films go into a reader right there, and you can see the breast tissue, little white veiny rivers spreading out over dark cyan. I don’t look more than a second there either, as I don’t want to speculate that some little white speck is a problem. I leave it to the radiologist, who will let me know the results in a couple of weeks.

The technician sunnily tells me I am free to go. She walks out, I speedily ditch the gown in a basket, put on my bra and shirt and jacket, done – with luck – for another year.

Today, I received the sad news that another dear friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, at her first mammogram. As overwhelming and shocking as it was to hear about, it of course plays out on a whole different level for her and her family. There isn’t a person who can hear the word “cancer” directed at them and not wonder if they are going to die from it, if that will be the way it goes. But they caught it early; her prognosis is excellent. She is a vibrant, joyous woman and a tough cookie, too, and will fight like a champion, I am sure. Her mammogram brought her bad news, but also gave her the chance to survive.

When I was little, “breast cancer” was never, ever, ever mentioned. It was almost seen as shameful, a ruination of womanhood, a secret to keep and never share. The first mammography machine wasn’t even produced until 1966, and radical mastectomy was the standard treatment for all breast cancer patients until the 1980s, when a better understanding of the nature of how cancer works led to successful outcomes with less-disfiguring surgeries. The first I ever heard of breast cancer at all was the game-changing event that was former First Lady Betty Ford taking her breast cancer diagnosis public in 1974, and with the publication of journalist Betty Rollin’s book, “First, You Cry,” in 1976. Think about that! In 1974 I was already 12 years old, and though surely there must have been many women around me that had had breast cancer, no one talked. The bravery of these two women in speaking up began to spark major changes in how society and medical culture handled the disease, and funding for breast cancer research has increased vastly over the last 30 years.

My friend faces some tough days ahead, but she will receive excellent care, and I believe that in another 5 years we will be celebrating her “all clear” notice. For me, all I can do is keep going in every year, hope that the letter I get that says all is well keeps being sent, and if it ever isn’t, that I can handle breast cancer with half the strength and grace I have seen in others. 

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. Please click here for more information and support.