The Pink Ribbon Sorority
As I combed out my hair after the shower that morning, I contemplated the fact that if I needed chemotherapy and my hair fell out, that my hair was going to grow back gray instead of my “natural” brown, and that was really going to suck. Given the fact that I was facing a potentially life-changing event, it seemed an odd thing to cross my mind, but there it was. You see, in 2006 I became a member of a unique sorority. Membership is automatic when certain conditions are met. It is not optional, but it may or may not be a lifetime membership. In 2006, I joined the Pink Ribbon Sorority when I discovered a lump in my breast.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with “the Girls”. They developed early, and like a pretty friend who’s had too much to drink at a party, commanded all the attention. I lost count of the number of times that people conducted whole conversations with “the Girls.” People assumed an inverse relationship between my cup size and my intellect; I am a smart woman-it annoyed me.After years of groping and constant back pain, I had a breast reduction.
I didn’t want to deal with the lump at first.I ignored pain in my nipples for a couple of weeks, even though I’d had no sensation in my nipples since the breast reduction. When the lump became visible in the mirror, I had it checked. I went to see the nurse practitioner at the doctor’s office, who sent me for an ultrasound, which located the lump and called it a “fibroadenoma”. The nurse practitioner advised that they were usually benign, but the radiologist had suggested further investigation was warranted. While the breast reduction had alleviated some of the unwanted attention, it had left me with scar tissue which made a definitive diagnosis of the lump difficult. I was referred to the Waterloo-Wellington Breast Screening Centre for a detailed examination. This Centre was a kind of “one stop shop” where a woman could receive an ultrasound, a mammogram, have the results read by the radiologist and see the surgeon the same day. It was designed to streamline the diagnostic process, and the associated stress and uncertainty.
I decided at the outset that I wasn’t going to say anything to anyone until there was something to say. My family members are all world-class worriers. If my mother, for example, didn’t have anything to worry about in the present, she would go back and re-worry the past. My husband tended to go immediately to worst case scenario and I didn’t want him spending the insurance money prematurely. My family would worry themselves sick until I had a diagnosis, and I didn’t feel that I could carry them, too. My close friends were dealing with their own share of problems (including two friends whose mothers were fighting breast cancer) and I didn’t want to burden them with something that might or might not be a problem. I’ve always supported everyone else and shouldered my own burdens- it’s just my way.
Random thoughts flitted through my brain periodically as I waited for a definitive diagnosis. Was it cancer? Who would take care of my family if I needed treatment? Could I sew well enough to alter my clothes if I needed a mastectomy? Would God really give me my daughter only to take me from her? And then there was the gray hair bit-bald I could handle; gray not so much. There wasn’t any logic to my musings; I’ve always tended towards the morbid and the dramatic.
After my referral to the breast screening clinic, I told my husband, my mother and my in-laws. I told them out of necessity since they were watching my toddler while I went to the various appointments. They handled it better than I expected, but reacted much as I anticipated. It added to my stress but had to be done. Chocolate and wine helped.
The morning of my appointment at the clinic was harried. My daughter slept in and my husband decided at the last moment to drive me, as I was walking out the door to the appointment. Since we still had to shoe my toddler and wrestle her into the car seat, I arrived at the clinic 10 minutes late and frazzled. As I stood at the reception, health card and ultrasound films in hand, another woman stood quietly waiting to talk with the receptionist. As the receptionist hung up the phone, the woman leaned forward and said “it was okay. It was fine!” The receptionist’s face lit up and she thanked the woman for sharing the news. She was obviously well known to the staff-I wondered if her results had always been “it was fine.” Somehow, I didn’t think so. That small exchange broke the dam on the nerves that I’d been keeping at bay-now I was scared.
There were two waiting areas. One had coffee, a television and a few chairs. It was right beside the reception and was designed for short stays. A couple of men and a few women sat there. This was the area for the routine screenings and for companions.
I was ushered to the other area. No explanation was needed when I walked in; this was the area for women who had Found Something. We were all there to find out what the Something was. Four or five women sat in pink flowered hospital gowns, idly flipping through the usual assortment of magazines, or making small talk. I donned my gown and joined them. The gown was designed to provide access and privacy at the same time…and there were pictures inside the dressing room explaining how to put it on properly. It was perky and flowery and I hated it on sight. Periodically, the efficient and cheerful staff summoned one of us for an ultrasound or a mammogram, and then we returned to wait for the surgeon. As the wait for the surgeon lengthened, we contemplated sparking a fashion revolt or possibly a new fashion trend by leading a parade to the cafeteria in our pink-flowered hospital gowns, but thought better of it.
My turn came for the mammogram. I’d never had a mammogram before, and I was dreading it. I’d heard all the horror stories and was really not looking forward to squashing “the Girls” like a panini. Even though I’d had a breast reduction, “the Girls” are formidable, and they only compress so far. Deirdre, the friendly, professional woman who shepherded me through the day, was also efficient. She explained that pain was not acceptable with the new digital mammograms-if it hurt there was a problem. She also explained everything every step of the way. By the time I had worked up a stress, the mammogram was finished, and I was sent back to wait with the others.
For the most part, we were alone. One woman sat with her daughter, one brave man sat hand in hand with his wife in a sea of women. The rest of us were unaccompanied. As the hours dragged on and we waited for the surgeon, the room grew quiet and introspective. A cheery voice heralded the arrival of the surgeon, and the atmosphere changed. The tension was palpable.
One of the nurses directed us one by one into the exam rooms. The woman who had been waiting with her daughter was the first to finish. As she left, she smiled at all of us and said “good luck.” Her face was unreadable; her daughter’s was relieved. Suddenly, it was my turn.
The surgeon breezed in and asked me about my family medical history. I don’t have a family medical history-at least not one that I have access to. I was adopted in an era when records were sealed-I have no idea what’s swimming in my gene pool. After flipping through a couple of pages, he advised me that nothing had been found that required further investigation and I was free to go. He would send a letter to my doctor. He was out the door and on to the next patient before I had a chance to ask any questions.
In the space of a few minutes my ordeal was over. “It was okay, I was fine.” I was not to become a full-fledged member of the Pink Ribbon Sorority this time-I could keep my family, my health, my life…my hair and my “natural” brown colour. Odds were, for at least one woman in pink today, her ordeal was just beginning. Cancer is the great equalizer. It doesn’t care who you are or what you do. Fame does not shield you; wealth affords you no protection. It will touch all of us one way or the other.
I donned my clothes and hurried out the waiting area. All of the seats were now occupied on the Found Something side and the people had spilled over to the other side. As I left, I caught the eye of a woman in the telltale pink flowered gown sitting holding hands with her husband. Her face told the tale. I mouthed “good luck” to her, and she smiled, but it didn’t quite make it all the way to her eyes. Her husband nodded at me, and seemed grateful for the acknowledgement. As I waited for my husband and daughter to rescue me and take me home to my life and my future, I said a prayer for the Pink Ribbon Sorority. Sometimes, all we have to offer is prayer.