Offering comfort and compassion to newly diagnosed women can be a blessing.
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
Sitting in the outpatient clinic, I waited for my name to be called. I was there for an ultrasound on my chest. At my last appointment with the breast surgeon, she'd discovered a suspicious mass and wanted me to have it checked immediately. As I sat waiting for my turn in the radiology lab, I watched all the women coming in for their mammograms. Women of all shapes and sizes were filing in like dutiful soldiers. After each woman entered, she was given instructions by a volunteer to take a gown, enter the dressing room and remove everything from the waist up. By the looks on their faces, I could tell which women had been through this procedure before and which ones were new to diagnostic testing. My heart went out to the newbies. I remembered how I'd felt on the first day of my initial mammogram. I was scared to death and had no idea what to expect. I'd wished for someone to come with me and hold my hand through the procedure. As I remembered how I felt, that's when I realized I had a huge responsibility. A breast cancer survivor would be the perfect person to come alongside a first timer, especially if she was a person with a positive story and a positive outlook on life. Although I no longer have my breasts, I'd already been through regular mammograms and diagnostic mammograms, biopsies, scans and treatment. I was a seasoned veteran in the breast cancer war.
I watched as one woman after another was called back for her test. Fear and trepidation crossed the faces of the first timers. I did my best to smile and say a kind word as each passed by. I wanted to help alleviate some of their anxiety, even if it was just in a very small way. I felt it was my duty. One of the volunteers in the area noticed my attempts to help. She came up to me and asked my name. I told her my name and shared the paraphrased version of my breast cancer story with her. She sat down beside me to listen for more. She asked a lot of questions and wondered if I might consider becoming a volunteer in the mammogram clinic. I explained the thought had crossed my mind. She told me I'd be perfect for the job. She'd been watching me interact with the other women and had seen a caring and compassionate heart. I thanked her for her kind remarks as my name was called.
Going back for my ultrasound was a piece of cake. I'd had several before and knew exactly what to expect. I'd already decided if the radiologist thought my cancer had returned, I'd be ready for the next step which would be a biopsy. I didn't get anxious or afraid. I greeted the radiology tech and we instantly began a conversation as she placed the conductive gel on my chest. I watched as she used the wand to glide over the area of concern. The computer screen showed an image I couldn't decipher but with her training, the tech knew exactly what she was viewing. The images were complete and the tech went to show them to the radiologist for his advice. When he came into the room to talk with me, I was calm and collected. As I mentioned earlier, I'd been through this procedure before and knew what to expect. No evidence of cancer had been found. I was very grateful and told the tech I hoped I didn't see her again any time soon. She smiled and said goodbye.
I exited the radiology room and headed back toward the dressing room to get my clothing. In the hallway, I saw a young woman with her head down. As I approached, I heard her soft sobs. Immediately, I knew she'd received bad news. I walked up beside her and spoke in a gentle and reassuring tone. I told her I was a survivor and I wanted her to know it was going to be OK. I wanted to offer her hope. She looked up and through tear filled eyes, I could tell she was hurting but also listening. I asked if she needed someone to talk with and offered to sit with her if she did. Her shoulders dropped and she quietly said, "I just can't believe it, why me?" I couldn't answer that question and told her so, but I did say I'd been in her shoes. I knew exactly how she was feeling. I'd asked the same question myself just a little less than three years ago. She asked me what would happen next and I told her a little of my story and how things had progressed. She seemed more at ease being able to hear about my experience. We exchanged phone numbers and I told her I would be available to answer any questions she might have, no matter how insignificant they seemed. We parted ways but before we did, I gave her a hug and reminded her, being told you have breast cancer doesn't necessarily mean you're going to die. She took a deep breath and let it out. "I'm so glad you said that," she exclaimed. She had been thinking, like I did when I was diagnosed, that breast cancer was a death sentence.
Being able to help reassure this newly diagnosed woman blessed me and made me realize that I want to encourage others. I also want to make sure my female friends and family get mammograms. An unwritten rule of responsibility falling on the shoulders of every survivor should be a willingness to comfort those newly diagnosed and help them navigate through cancer. Some survivors would be better equipped and more willing to assist in this way than others, but I feel it my duty to step up and help lighten the load of another if at all possible.