By Rain Brennan Tiller
It’s the classic horror movie trope: a girl in the shower, an ominous feeling, a hidden evil that suddenly reveals itself. It’s a jump scare.
While not entirely like a shadowy figure wielding a knife behind the shower curtain, finding a lump in the shower certainly has a similar effect.
According to United States Breast Cancer Statistics, about 12% of women will develop invasive breast cancer over their lifetime. Thousands more will be diagnosed with benign tumors. As a daughter and great-niece of breast cancer survivors, I’ve always been aware of this particular statistic, and even more, my personal chances of carrying the infinitesimal yet life-threatening BCRA– also known as the breast cancer gene.
But this lifelong awareness could never have prepared me for that saturday afternoon shower. The next morning, I was at urgent care receiving a thorough exam from a registered nurse. Thirty minutes later, there was a referral for the breast cancer clinic at UNC with my name on it marked “URGENT.” And it was that friday, not even a week since the fateful shower scene, that I was sitting in the UNC hospital in an open-backed smock.
In those seven days between discovery and doctor’s appointment, I learned something profound about women’s health, particularly breast health: there’s a specific kind of fear that you experience when you’re waiting at home, in the clinic lobby, or in the cold exam room with the mammogram machine looming in the corner; the fear feels like all the cells in your breast tissue and underarms screaming with dread.
But I also learned that there is a specific kind of solidarity, too. Somewhere deep inside the UNC hospital complex, behind many doors and many administrative desks, there’s a tiny waiting room that leads to the hall of mammograms. When you first enter the lobby, you’re given a stiff cotton smock and a small locker to store your discarded shirt and bra. In this particular waiting room, a television in the corner played nonstop HGTV.
For roughly two hours, it was me, my mother, and six other women in that waiting room. We were different ages– my twenty years was markedly younger than the more mature women around me, which earned me a few sad, speculative looks. But, we all had a few things in common: the awful smocks and the even worse fear. The anticipation in the air was well-maintained; it was tempered by sassy commentary as we all watched clueless couples buy overpriced homes on House Hunters, but it spiked when another name was called by one of the nurses.
Over the course of a few programs on HGTV, I felt connected to all the women in the waiting room. Our shared fear, our shared laughter, our shared strength circulated in the stagnant hospital air.
By the time I had returned home from the hospital, I had learned that I didn’t have cancer, not even a benign tumor. But I was still thinking about the ladies I had bonded with in the waiting room: were they okay?
Later, as I read the chaotic news characterizing America’s changing political landscape, I caught a headline about the repealing of the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. And another question deeply worried me: were they going to be able to afford that hospital visit? And what if they weren’t okay– what if they had to pay out-of-pocket for continued treatment?
The fear I felt for my health can also be a part of the greater, national concern for healthcare. With the sweeping policy changes brought on by a Republican Congress and a Trump Presidency, millions are going to worry about their access to affordable healthcare. And just like the careful bonding in the waiting room, solidarity will also be important for demanding the health policy millions of Americans will need to survive.