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My 32nd Annual Mammogram

As a cancer survivor, my time in the waiting room with three other anxious women feels familiar

By Lyla Blake Ward

The customary knot in my stomach intensified as I approached The Mammography Center to have what would be my 32nd annual mammogram. 

The woman at the desk verified my appointment and asked another woman, whose badge said "Volunteer," to escort me inside. Although I knew the drill well, I let her instruct me on how to put on the cotton jacket (ties go in front) and where to put my clothes. She gave me the key to my locker and after depositing my clothes, I went into the small waiting room.

Women waiting in a doctor's office waiting room. Next Avenue, mammogram, older women, breast cancer screening story
Credit: Getty

There were eight or nine chairs occupying three walls of a 10 x 10 windowless room. The fourth wall had some magazines on a rack. Four women, three in robes identical to mine, were doing what one does in the waiting room.

One was leafing casually through a dog-eared women's magazine; one was reading a report on some crisp-looking paper in a neat folder; another was just sitting, nervously keeping the front of her robe together; and the fourth, wearing street clothes, was trying desperately to control a toddler who was bent on breaking out of the pen-like room.

On entering, I greeted them with the half-smile one uses for strangers. The "clutcher" returned my greeting with a half-smile of her own; the "magazine reader" looked up and said, "Good morning."

I was well aware the fact that I was here 31 years after my operation was the most reassurance I could offer.

The "executive" didn't take her eyes off her document, and the older woman with the little boy was too busy trying to rein in her small charge to acknowledge my presence. I had barely taken my seat when the most apparently nervous of the four women asked if this was my first time.

I said, no, it was actually my twenty-fifth mammogram since my mastectomy. All eyes were on me then.

"Oh," one of the women said, "you had a mastectomy?" Since I had already said I had, I knew the question was more in the form of an exclamation.

"They're not sure about me," she added, fiddling even more intensely with the short strings of the robe. "I'm waiting to talk to the radiologist."

Sharing My Experience

I knew she wanted me to say something. Over the years I had shared this or other spaces like it with anxious women waiting for what seemed like an eternity to hear the results of their mammograms.

On such occasions, I would pull out that portion of my experience I thought would do the most good for whatever concerned woman I was talking to.  

I was well aware the fact that I was here 31 years after my operation was the most reassurance I could offer.

When I was newly post-op, I met with a volunteer from Reach to Recovery who had had a mastectomy ten years before. I couldn't take my eyes off her. I kept looking to see if I could tell which was the real breast and which was the prosthesis. I hung on to her words of encouragement as if she was a judge who had decided to commute my death sentence. 

To the woman on the chair opposite mine, I was this women who had recovered. I had lived through what she might still have to face. 

"Where are you in the process?" I asked.

She replied, "My first mammogram, a month ago, showed a dark spot. If everything looks the same today, the doctor wants me to have a biopsy."

"Who's your doctor?"

"Dr. Robinson."

"Oh," I said enthusiastically. "He's my doctor. He's great. You can trust him."

I didn't add, "He's a wonderful surgeon." That wasn't what she wanted to hear just now.

At that point, one of the other women, the magazine reader, joined in. "He's my doctor, too." This was said with a little pride in her voice, glad to be on the winning team.

Then hastily, in a kind of effort to separate herself from us, the afflicted, she added, "But I'm just here for my annual mammogram."

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Now the woman with the child was emboldened to speak. "Why do they make appointments if they're not going to keep them? My daughter's been in there for an hour." She didn't appear to be as worried about what was happening with her daughter as she was in ending her misery as a babysitter.

Spoken and Unspoken Anxiety in the Room

The executive looked at her watch. "Over an hour," she contributed. "You were here when I got here, and that's about an hour and five minutes."

Everyone had been heard from. No names were exchanged, but in a way we had introduced ourselves. Now the spoken and unspoken anxiety seemed to fill the small room.

As befit my "survivor" status, I was the elected conversation leader and was about to launch into the non-correlation between the waiting time and the result of the X-ray, when a young woman in a white jacket stood in the doorway and looked around the room. "Mrs. Conway?" she asked, waiting for one of us to speak up. 

Everyone had been heard from. No names were exchanged, but in a way we had introduced ourselves.

"I'm Mrs. Conway," the nervous lady answered. Did I detect a reassuring smile on the radiologist's face? "Come with me. We can talk in there." She indicated a cubicle outside our waiting room, and she led Mrs. Conway down the hall.

With one woman having been plucked from our midst, the remaining four of us seemed immediately closer. The grandmother had pulled the little boy onto her lap. He looked as if he might fall asleep, so I ventured a question: "Is your daughter all right?"

"I guess so," the woman answered, rocking the child sort of harshly as she spoke. "Said something about wanting to keep an eye on her, you know, some breast thing. But we never had anything like that in our family."

The other three of us exchanged glances. The executive was no longer writing.

A Bond Had Formed

"It's probably nothing," the executive said. "They have to be careful. Hospitals are being sued so often these days."

As she was finishing the sentence, another woman, tall, fifty-ish, entered the room, her jacket tied efficiently around her waist.

"Isn't that the truth?" she added, as she took the seat formerly occupied by the clutcher. "And they don't even know how good these tests are. I have a friend who, it turned out, had a lump the mammogram didn't even catch."

I felt obligated to defend the medical profession. "I'm awfully glad I had one when I did." The "new arrival" looked at me with an expression that suggested she was not used to having her statements countered.

The magazine flipper, referring to me, interjected importantly, "She had a mastectomy." This was said in much the same way as a subject, making fun of Queen Elizabeth, might be warned the Queen was standing right behind her.

The new arrival had the grace to back down. Looking straight at me, she said, "Oh, you know what I mean. They're always changing their minds about everything. Now they say self-examination ..."

Her thought was interrupted by the appearance of "the daughter" who, fully clothed, appeared in the doorway. Without looking at any of us, she said, "C'mon, Mama. We can go now."

She didn't attempt to take her son, now wakeful and a little cranky, from her mother's arms. The grandmother got up and, following her daughter out, could be heard complaining, "What took so long? He's sleepy now, but this child's a little devil."

Not another word was said. The executive seemed to find new interest in her papers. The magazine flipper found another old Country Journal to look at. And the new arrival whipped out, "The Da Vinci Code" and opened to the bookmarked page.

I concentrated on my New York Times crossword puzzle until a technician called out, "Mrs. Crawford?" and the executive stood up. She almost smiled at me as she went around my feet, and I returned the acknowledgement.

One more to go, I thought. I'm next. Calm now. Calm. Women don't get recurrences after 33 years. Do they?

Happily, in my case, no.

Contributor Lyla Blake Ward
Lyla Blake Ward 



At 94, Lyla Blake Ward of Somers, N.Y. is still writing and speaking out about subjects that amuse or concern her. Her op-eds and social commentaries appear in newspapers and magazines across the country.
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