All Clear: Black Women, Mammograms and Meetings

Today I went to the hospital for a mammogram. I was due for a yearly, but I scheduled this one after feeling a lump in my left breast, which always brings a little anxiety. Okay, so it brings a lot of anxiety. Since 1987, I’ve technically had four breast biopsies. A biopsy is a surgical procedure and a removal or cells or tissues for purposes of testing. I encountered my first lump when I was a freshman in college and a student at what is now Clark Atlanta University. At the time, it was my boyfriend who found the lump in my right breast, which was about the size of a quarter. Of course, I was quite stunned and went immediately into “what am I going to do” mode. In spite of being pretty freaked out, I called my mother and managed to set an appointment back home with an oncologist, who was a professional and trusted friend of my mother’s (my mother is a retired nursing professional). At the time he was considered one of the best oncologists in the area. As suggested, I underwent surgery to remove the lump and have it tested for cancer. Afterwards, the doctor reassured me that the lump was benign. It was fibroadenoma, which is a condition that is experienced quite often by African-American women. Thankfully I was cancer free and all clear.

Three biopsies later and recently I found a very small lump in my left breast; it is about a fifth the size of a nickel, which is barely noticeable, but tender to the touch and especially when ovulating or right before my menstrual cycle. After several scary situations involving my breasts, I now know that I have dense breast tissue (though my breasts are not really that big), and cystic breasts as well. Despite that understanding, I was concerned when I found this lump. And, I was even more concerned, because right now I don’t have health insurance. Yep, that’s what I said. Anyhow, I managed to find a local program for women over 40 to address breast and reproductive health, and I decided to take advantage of it. Here in the Atlanta area, there are many free programs or programs that are at a minimal cost that are in place to address women’s health and wellness. Actually, it’s probably easier to take advantage of these programs if you don’t have insurance than if you do. But, as usual, one has to know how to find them.

So today I went for my mammogram. When I arrived I checked in on a kiosk, which was something that I had never done before, and I waited. Really waited. In fact, I waited for at least one hour before I was called to officially register with someone from the hospital who verified payment or the persons responsible for the payment. I was glad to learn that everything had been forwarded properly and electronically (thanks to the awesome nurse practitioner who had seen me a week or so earlier). From that moment on, I found myself in many conversations with black women about everything from my breast health to my personal choices overall. The ease at which these women felt free to ask me about my hair, my reproductive choices, and my approach to healthy living was very interesting to me. By the time I moved to the waiting room, I was totally engaged in many conversations: about babies, reproductive health, previous operations, and enemas. Gathered around a television, there was a group about six of us who talked about everything, even the popularity of The Steve Harvey Show, which was on the television as we waited for our results. At one point in the conversation, I was acutely aware of the open dialogue that was taking place. It was as if we were old friends sitting at the kitchen table.

A couple of the women who were there sat quietly, without saying much at all. Often they were checking their phones and opting for silence amongst the rest of us who were talking carefree about our various issues with our breasts, and, of course, with our uteruses. One woman whispered (mouthed) to me from across the room that many years ago she had an abortion and a hysterectomy. I similarly let her know that I had previously had a myomectomy to remove uterine fibroids. Most of us sitting there were waiting for the radiologist to get a second or third look at breast tissue, including me. Finally, I got the news that, on the one hand, my mammogram was “all clear,” but the radiologist asked that I be seen as well for an ultrasound to get a closer look at the area where I felt the lump. I actually appreciated that recommendation, which suggested that I would, at least, get a thorough examination.

As I waited, as we waited, there was one woman right next to me who gained my attention. She was an older Caribbean woman from the Virgin Islands. Under her hat, her hair was salt and pepper braided back and down in cornrolls. We talked about many homeopathic remedies. She shared some of her secrets of natural foods and remedies that are cancer-fighting, and I talked about some of the things that I do for my health, like use tea tree oil on my face and in my bath water (especially to open my sinuses). By the time I was called for the ultrasound, the Caribbean woman and I were exchanging phone numbers and planning to speak again. There was something about her that I really liked, though I realized that we were worlds apart on at least one level – the god-thing. Nevertheless, I respected her journey through life (and I did not feel like getting into a conversation about atheism, which is generally how it goes with believers). When she told me that she had survived spine cancer, I was really blown away. I remembered seeing her when I first walked in and that I had initially admired her strength as she walked across the room pushing a mobile walker.

As the afternoon progressed, all of us, well all but one of us, cheered as we each emerged from the consultation room and were given the news that all was clear. Once I had been cleared by the doctor, and informed that there was nothing to worry about, I went back to the meeting or waiting area where we were and prepared to say goodbye to the one woman remaining. We chatted briefly, and then the radiologist came to her to say that she was free to go. Turning to her I asked, “All clear?” With a wide grin she said, “All clear.” The woman from the Virgin Islands was no longer in the room; she had been called in for a second mammogram after she had given me her telephone number.

Upon leaving the hospital, I reflected on how important it is for women to talk with each other healthy living and healthy eating. Only one woman in the room remained silent the entire time. A younger white woman who was there looked quite uninterested in being in conversation with us, but after awhile even she chimed in, and especially upon leaving when she declared, “All Clear.” Contemplating these dynamics I thought, what good does it do us not to share our health secrets and experiences? I could sense that most of the women who were there were nervous, and that includes me. With my history, I have been one of the ones in the room who could not say “All Clear.” I have taken the walk out of offices following mammogram screenings feeling very scared and shaken. Had I gone in to that ultrasound today and there was another reason to come back, or if I had been sent to see a specialist or a surgeon, I don’t know what my reaction would have been, in fact. Maybe I would have resented even hearing or saying the words “All Clear,” or, maybe because of the conversations that I had with those black women and in the waiting room, maybe my heart would have been a little stronger because we took the opportunity to share our common experience and frailty as human beings. As I made my way to the MARTA bus stop, I found myself looking forward to tomorrow so that I could call my new acquaintance from the Virgin Islands. Of course, when she answers, I hope to hear the words, “All Clear” but if not, it will still be my honor to talk with her because I can always respect the power of compassion, community and a genuine experience or at least the undeniable sense of sisterhood.

© 2013 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

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