Breast cancer starts with a lump, or no warning at all.
Breast Cancer Awareness month is over, but breast cancer isn’t. About 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed this year. Everybody knows someone who has had it. I used to keep a list, but then it got too long and I stopped when I got to 22.
But breast cancer doesn’t stop. At a baby shower last year, the woman on my right was just finishing chemo, and the woman on my left was just starting it. They talked over me to give each other advice and encouragement, the way women do.
We know the cure rate is very good when breast cancer is found early, but most of us sit in anxious, tight knots while we wait for our names to be called at the mammogram center. We’re an older group and we’ve been here before, so we know the drill.
Wrapped in large hospital gowns, one opening in back and one opening in front, the waiting women tell snippets of their stories. One woman completed treatment 20 years ago and has been fine; another just found a lump and is here with fingers crossed that it’s benign.
On one of my yearly visits, science and religion merged. A woman in the tiny waiting room stood and asked if anyone minded being “prayed over,” as she put it. She was a lay preacher at her church and felt called to bless everybody. Nobody objected and she sent up a prayer and a blessing.
Each woman takes her turn to enter the imaging room, the one with the big plastic and metal machine that looks like it belongs in a factory. She offers up her breasts to the cold slab and hopes the machine will give her good news. Most of the time, it does.
On my yearly visit, the technician, a reassuring, soft-spoken woman who looked like Aunt Bea, only younger, said there is good news. More and more women are coming in for mammograms.
People are aware that help is out there. Even women without insurance can get a voucher for free screening or make a partial payment. In the middle of those pink balloons and marchers in pink tee-shirts and all the hoopla that surrounds the marches and rallies, real progress is being made.
But not every time.
Of the 22 women on my breast cancer list, only 2 didn’t make it. One was a teacher, Carol, whose gifted students lined the pews at her funeral service. She taught them to read other people’s poems and write their own. Another was a potter, Nancy, who shaped plates and mugs on her potter’s wheel and added a half moon for luck, she said.
Her luck ran out before the new therapies and 3-D diagnostic machines. If she were here today, she’d scold people who say they don’t have time for mammograms, or they’re too nervous to get one, or they’re not fool-proof. All of this may be true, but get one anyway.
Do it for the ones who can’t and those who won’t. Do it for yourself and your family. It only takes an hour. That’s not much time in a woman’s life, no matter how busy she is. Just do it.