A young woman who appeared to be in her early thirties sat two chairs away from me in the breast imagining center. While I was still in one of those gowns they give you when you get a mammogram, she was fully dressed. I was waiting to learn if the additional imaging just conducted on me would clear me, or if a breast ultrasound was next. She too was waiting, wearing a look I thought I recognized.
Curious, I opened a conversation with her and she was all too anxious to talk to someone. She was alone and clearly did not want to be. Tears came to her eyes. She was waiting for the results of a breast biopsy. She explained that she had a mass on her left breast, unconsciously gesturing toward the area like we all seem to do in such a situation.
My heart went out to her. She was scared and I could relate. The previous year I had undergone three biopsies, two on the right breast and one on the left. I had never had any issues with my breasts in the past and suddenly I was hearing words I had never heard before. There were “lesions” in my breasts. My “BI-RADS” was a 4. And the purpose for extracting tissue from the lesions was to determine if any of them were a “malignant neoplasm.”
My BI-RADS was subcategorized as a 4A, which meant low suspicion for malignancy, about 13% “positive predictive value,” but the fact remained that someone had to make up that percentage! And did those odds apply to each of the lesions separately, or all three together? Ugh.
She too was waiting, wearing a look I thought I recognized.
In the world of breast biopsies, my experience is called a “breast cancer scare.” It comes free with your breast biopsy. My biopsy results eventually showed that while each lesion was a different issue, none of them were cancer. I was immensely relieved and grateful. I was also, now, painfully aware of the many women whose results were very different than mine, women who had abruptly found themselves fighting for their lives. That sea of pink that I knew about only vaguely became sharply human.
I thought about the breast cancer survivors I knew, and how I had been so detached while they were struggling. I felt ashamed. Granted, I was not particularly close to any of them, but that was a poor excuse. Over the next several weeks after my benign findings, I sought out those among them I could and apologized for being so dense. I told myself never again. Never again would I fail to reach out in a personal way to any woman dealing with breast cancer, facing the prospect of breast cancer, or anything near it. It wouldn’t matter if I knew them or not. I would take every opportunity that came my way and make my own if none did.
One such opportunity sat two chairs away from me in the breast imaging center. The “developing microcalcifications” and “distinct nodularities” under investigation in my own breasts somehow paled by comparison to this frightened young woman. I told her that I had undergone three biopsies the previous year. Her interest piqued, she asked questions about my results and I explained them all. Here was someone who had been exactly in her shoes and I could see that this mattered to her. I told her how fortunate it was that she would get her results right away at this facility, unlike the agonizing four days I waited for mine at another facility the previous year. She nodded, understanding the wise choice she had made as I said, “This place gets it.”
A short time later, she was called away to get her results. She came back with the news that it was a low-grade tumor. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, but her tears made it clear that this was not the news she had hoped for. I wished her luck as we parted ways. Later, I researched low-grade tumor on the internet and learned that it involved slow-growing cancer cells that look almost normal. I was glad to also learn that the prognosis for most low-grade tumors is very good.
I think about and pray for that young woman every day. Whether I helped or not, I will never know. I hope I did. I’m glad to have been someone who could identify with her when she was facing a difficult moment. I believe that is what empathy is, and it seems to me that it and grace are both parts of the same universe. When we can identify with someone else’s struggle we are more likely to be intentional about offering grace rather than being indifferent, busy, or uncomfortable. From now on I’m not waiting until I have to experience something myself. I’m going to pursue hurting people, listen to their stories, connect with them on an intimate level. A breast biopsy taught me that about grace.
That sea of pink that I knew about only vaguely became sharply human.
As for my results, the additional images found no signs of malignancy. I could return next year for my regular screening. When that time comes and if there happens to be a breast biopsy in the house, you can bet I’ll be making an opportunity.
You’ll also like On Life and Cancer, from a Pediatric Oncology Nurse, A Mammogram Taught Me How Strong and Beautiful Women Are, 10 Things I Learned About Cancer as an Oncology Nurse, and Words of Encouragement From a Cancer Survivor