Confined to her doctor’s waiting room, Nicole passed the time reading gossip about the Hollywood elite in a recent issue of Us Weekly. She focused on celebrity photos revealing everything from wardrobe malfunctions in Milan to nanny issues in Malibu. She had no sympathy for the lifestyles of the rich and famous, whose personal problems seemed like a dream come true among the masses. Between the clothes worth more than she earned in a year and the custom handbags worth more than her car, she could only imagine what life was like on the other side of her eight-dollar-an-hour job.
Dressed in her work uniform, she watched a forty-something woman in mom jeans and sandals leave the water cooler with her cone-shaped cup to inspect the waiting area for a seat. Pretending to be mired in a full page article, she avoided eye contact and discretely placed a magazine on the empty chair beside her. She kept the patient in her peripheral vision—right up to the point where the woman snagged the magazine off the chair and claimed the spot for herself.
Nicole wanted to move without overtly rejecting the stranger encroaching on her personal space in a pink sweatshirt two sizes too big. Instead, she kept to herself and reached for another magazine from the coffee table. This time she opened an issue of National Geographic. Before she could skim the first sentence, the woman perked up and said, “My husband worked for National Geographic. He does photography. Mostly black and white, but he also shoots color. I always wanted to learn photography. I mean, I know how to use a camera. I just don’t know how to take pictures the way my husband does. How hard could it be, right? You don’t even use real film anymore. Point, shoot, and done.”
“Nice,” Nicole replied curtly.
“Are you here for Doctor Sanders or Doctor Hemsky?”
“Me too. He’s the best. If he hadn’t caught my tumor, I’d be rotting in a coffin by now. Makes you look at life differently, you know? Like maybe we shouldn’t take so much for granted. Doctor Sanders told me his wife had breast cancer at one time. Talk about a lucky woman. I mean, not that she was lucky to have cancer, but that her husband is a doctor.”
Nicole kept her face pointed squarely at her magazine, hoping Chatty Patty would take the hint.
“I’m Beth, by the way.”
“How long have you been with Doctor Sanders?”
Nicole flipped the page. “Not long.”
“Are you from Nashville?” Beth prodded.
“Just moved here.”
“Are you married?”
“Any family here?”
“I have an older brother and a younger sister. Got an uncle down in Baton Rouge. My folks retired in Pennsylvania. My husband’s family all lives in East Nashville. Born and raised. What kind of work do you do?”
Beth pointed to the uniform. “Gotcha. The chemotherapy must be stunting my brain. I’m usually not this dense. I had a mastectomy last month.” She paused to sip her water. “You’re not much of a talker are you? I used to be that way. Before my diagnoses. I lost my stamina for exercise, but I find the energy to run my mouth. Cancer’s been in my family for generations. I knew my time would come. My husband has been supportive. He pretends it doesn’t bother him, but he doesn’t look at me the same. I found a good plastic surgeon. I can give you his name if you want. If you give me your phone number, I’ll text his information to you.”
Nicole closed the magazine in her lap, her nerves chaffed from the ninety-minute wait for a ten minute follow-up consultation. “No thanks.”
“If you change your mind, you’ll know where to find me. First I have to finish with the radiotherapy. If the cancer doesn’t kill me, my armpits might. Can’t wear deodorant because it interferes with the treatment. As if getting flambéed with radiation after having my breasts surgically removed wasn’t bad enough, Doctor Sanders makes me stink like a homeless person when I’m here. I guess it’s better than the alternative. My mother died from breast cancer. Her mother died from it too.”
Nicole crossed her legs and imagined she was sitting on the moon instead of waiting for an appointment that could change her life forever. As much as she tried to ignore her new dance partner, the woman got her point across. Breast cancer wasn’t the end of the world, but it was close. And not knowing her fate for certain, one way or the other, made it worse. She’d endured another gauntlet of tests, subjecting herself to more discomfort and doubt than any woman deserved. Now she needed to hear the final verdict. Good or bad, she would accept the outcome.
“If your mother had breast cancer, your chances of getting it increase significantly,” Beth continued unabated.
“My mother’s fine.”
“What about your grandmother?”
“She died years ago.”
Nicole bounced her leg on her knee and maintained a pinched expression. She dropped her magazine on the table the second she heard her name called out and hobbled on a numb leg toward the nurse who’d summoned her. Her butt tingled from sitting too long.
She found the doctor’s office as cold and inhospitable as she remembered it, with the familiar gun-metal desk and the big iMac with the white goose neck lamp beside it. When the nurse left, she took her phone out and started texting the one person she needed most.
“Hands are shaking,” she typed. She waited several agonizing seconds for a reply.
“It will be ok.“
“What if it’s bad news?”
“Don’t go there yet.“
“I think I’m going to throw up.”
“Wish U were here.”
“Me 2. TTYS.“
Nicole slipped her phone in her pocket when Doctor Sanders arrived unannounced and logged into his computer. “Your final lab results are here. Let me just pull them up and take a look.” He concentrated on the screen. “Your initial diagnostics showed micro calcifications. I see we did a second biopsy from the lower region in your left breast to look for infiltrating ductal carcinoma.”
“No more tests,” said Nicole. “I can’t stomach anymore of this. I don’t eat. I don’t sleep. All I think about are lab results. I’m so sick and tired of being squeezed and poked like some kind of lab rat. Whatever the verdict, just tell me and get it over with. I can’t take this anymore.”
Doctor Sanders moved the mouse to scroll the screen and review the patient profile. He maintained the same stony expression he had when he entered the room, unflinching and void of any concern or emotional response.
“How bad is it?”
Doctor Sanders typed a note. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I’m going to throw up.”
“Well don’t. Everything looks good.”
“What does that mean? No cancer?”
“No cancer. Go home. Have a glass of wine. My receptionist can schedule your next annual screening.”
Nicole started crying. “Seriously?” She wanted to hug her doctor. Instead, she went out and sent another text message to her man in all caps. “I feel like I won the lottery!”