On an early winter morning recently, I checked into the Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Center of Prentice Women's Hospital at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago. I was there for my annual mammogram, and as usual I was pretty shaky. I hate this exam because of the bad news that may come from the test. It's frightening and even if I know most women feel the same way, I always feel an isolated loneliness -- it's just not fun.
I sign in and sit down. When the check-in person calls my name -- using my first name -- I am even more on edge. Somehow the first-name reference makes the whole experience seem more serious. (I prefer the old manners when I was referred by as "Mrs. Fraser.") Anyway... We get the insurance paper work completed and I sit down again.
On to the dressing room and then to meet the technician, all scary but I know the drill and nervously follow her into the room with the "machine." Believe me when I say that I consider this life-saving, cancer detection "machine" a necessary one for me and the millions of other women out there, but today as I walk towards it, my only thought is that it reminds me more of a torture device. After being mashed, pushed, squeezed and twisted, I finish my routine and get ready for the "big wait."
I return to the waiting room and perch myself near three other women -- two are about my age and one is closer to 20. One of the older women begins to talk about this yearly ritual and discloses that she is a breast cancer survivor of four years. The other older woman tells us it's been eight years for her. The young woman had been on the phone while the two women were revealing their survivor status. There is silence in the room and the young woman chooses not to engage with us. It was pretty clear from her phone conversations that she was going to have more tests and that she was told, that she may have breast cancer. Near tears, face pale and hands shaking -- she just sat there saying nothing.
Usually after a mammogram, you get your results within 20 or 30 minutes. The technician comes in and takes you to a private room and explains the radiologist's findings. On this day, for some reason, I waited, and waited, and waited. About 45 minutes later and after much sweating on my part, the technician called my name and led me into the consultation room. Fear was the only word to describe my mood as I held my breath waiting for her to tell me that my cancer had returned! But she told me the radiologist was busy, thus the delay in getting my results -- and the good news was that I was okay and she would see me next year. Big sigh of relief! Wow... whew! I felt much lighter and my shallow breathing returned to a normal pace.
As I left the consultation room, I remembered the young girl in the waiting room and felt compelled to share some of my strength. So I took a little detour and stopped to speak to her since she was still waiting for her results. I sat down and told her this was the hard part... waiting to see what type, how much and what was to be done about the cancer. I told her she would survive just like I did and having breast cancer was not an automatic death sentence. She looked at me with those frightened eyes we breast-cancer survivors know so well... and I reached over and hugged her. It felt right to share and pass this on with her.
On the way home I thought about what I had told her and what I had been through more than 40 years ago. I had been loyal to doing my self-examinations and followed up with this mammogram trip each year for the past 40 years. And I have to say, the panic scenario and the racing thoughts of fear and doom always return. But I did them.
Forty years ago, when I lost one of my breasts, the automatic thing to do was to remove it. Today, because of an aggressive awareness campaign and millions of dollars spent on research, women no longer have to face a life of disfigurement or worry about not being whole. It's organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the American Cancer Society, and Planned Parenthood that have made the difference. There is still a lot of work to do, especially in the minority communities -- they have a higher risk of breast cancer and many more fatalities. But we've come a long way and from the pictures I've posted here, you can see that life goes on for us lucky ones!
It is personally important to me that the message is spread to our sisters, mothers, aunts, wives and friends -- that help is there and early detection is the key. There are people and organizations like those mentioned above that are there to help. Get involved... Spread the word and wear your pink ribbon, because I also believe that before we leave this earth there will be someone we love who will have this disease and they need to know there is hope and help!
Regina Fraser -- 40-year cancer survivor and proud to wear a pink ribbon
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