A few weeks ago, my annual mammogram revealed irregular calcification. In the following days, I had a second mammogram, a biopsy, a diagnosis of breast cancer, and an appointment with a surgeon at the Simon Cancer Center, one of the best cancer hospitals in the world. I had surgery within a matter of days. I’ll start radiation treatments soon. My prognosis is good.
I never felt the tumor. According to the surgeon, by the time I’d have been able to feel it, the prognosis would have been dire.
Just call me the poster-woman for mammograms.
Pay attention! Get yours, if you’re due. Bully your mothers, friends, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, and nieces to get theirs, as well.
But what I really want to write about is a woman I saw at the Breast Center when I went for my second mammogram. She and her husband were ahead of me, checking in. They were in their mid- to late-forties, dressed in a way that made me know they didn’t have much.
Her husband was on the phone, talking in a low voice, but I couldn’t help hear what he was saying—and I wasn’t the only one. “Please,” he said. “I know, but...” Silence while he listened. “Look. We’re pinching pennies here,” he said. “I’ve been laid off, my wife just got laid off.” More silence. “All right, then.” He set the phone back into the cradle, turned to his wife, put his arm around her shoulder, and they walked toward the exit, heads down, as quickly as they could.
“I’m sorry,” the receptionist said to me—as if the problem lay in the fact that I’d had to witness what had just happened. Not that I fault her. It was an awful, awkward moment. What else might she have said?
The thing is, I can’t stop thinking about that woman who was turned away.
Was she there for an annual mammogram—or a second mammogram, as I was? Had she made the appointment because she’d found a lump?
Would whatever procedure she’d come for have revealed that all was well, alleviating her anxiety and her husband’s? Would she have needed a biopsy, would that biopsy have revealed cancerous cells and are those cancerous cells growing inside her right now, as I recover from my surgery?
It’s impossible to know. She vanished into the parking lot, onto the highway, home—one of millions of women who might die of breast cancer because they can’t get the care they need.
“Show, don’t tell.” I say to my writing students. One good detail is worth a thousand explanations and arguments. Details make things real—and, believe me, that woman is very, very real to me. I will never forget her.
So, like I said, get that annual mammogram.
And please, please, vote on Tuesday for that other woman’s right to get the healthcare she needs, too. Of course, every woman and every man deserve the right to good healthcare.
But it’s that one woman I’ll be thinking of when I cast my vote.
I hope you’ll think about her, too.