Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
One breast cancer survivor shares the whirlwind of emotions that accompanied her while sitting in the waiting room.
I recently found a reflection that I wrote the day I got the mammogram that would start the ball rolling to diagnose my cancer. I share it here as an unfiltered glimpse into the mind of a busy woman with a family history of cancer getting a mammogram:
Here I am, back again in the Women's Imaging Center, my mother's phantom breast haunting me, her remaining breast with its new tumor as close to me as my shadow. I am so tired of doctors' offices, imaging machines and missing work that when I leave this place I will drive 10 miles in the wrong direction to a shopping mall, where I will walk in and out of stores until it is time for me to turn around and drive back to work.
I will look at nightgowns and wonder if I should buy a pink one or if I will need a lime green robe in case company comes after my surgery, if I even have to have surgery, if this time my own mammogram fails me. Although I do not have a small child, I will look at children's clothing. I will hover near a group of women talking about being laid off and sick mothers and sales. Then I will move on, wondering what it would be like to buy a cotton blouse made in India and sold here for $100. Is this what people do when they think they are going to die? Spend money? I do not need a lace blouse or a new pocketbook.
What I need, I realize, before I drive to the mall, while I am waiting for my mammogram, is something other than the loud radio in the corner making my head hurt, its songs incapable of softening the grip of mammography. Here I am also surrounded by women, young and old, and I can tell one has found a lump in her breast and is worried. She is the one who is wearing a large onyx ring. I wonder if the man following her around is her husband. I think he is worried too in the way he carries her pocketbook and insurance card. This woman has a startled look, as if she cannot decide how she feels, happy or sad, afraid or scared to death of fear and loathing and small cells.
To avoid the music, I get out earphones. On my cell phone, there are 13 voicemails my dearest friend left before he died, each one telling me what doctors think or how he feels. Some share instead a poem in a voice that grows softer and softer until the last message that arrived on my birthday, where the voice falters, almost gone. That was the year he forgot to wish me a Happy Birthday, death on his mind. Now, waiting, as I listen to his voice, every time he says “Felicia” I hear my name, his voice calling my name different from the voice of the clerk who will call my name. I can tell from the way he says it that he knows me, not just my chart.
My friend's voice comforts me as I sit here in the chair, not afraid but tired and wondering if my mother's incision will get infected with resistant staph in her nursing home. And she has not even had surgery yet, her tumor still resting there on her breast like a piece of pie she spilled or ice cream or something so much less malignant. I anticipate everything. Early this morning, before I went to work or to the Women's Imaging Center, I ordered sweatshirts that snap for my mother to wear when she recuperates from her breast surgery.
After I leave the waiting room, before I drive to the mall, the technician will take multiple images of my right breast in the imaging room. She will talk cheerfully about how something looks different this year, maybe nothing, only the radiologists will be able to say for sure, she says. Maybe a biopsy, or nothing, nothing more than another year before it is my turn again to sit and wait for my mammogram. By then, both my mother's breasts will be gone. Perhaps she will be gone too, like my friend who left me his voice, to that place we fear most of all in waiting rooms. I have no clue what is in store.