Breast Cancer Patients Connect on Emotional Level in Waiting Rooms

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • If you’ve been through long-term breast cancer treatment–chemo, radiation, anything that involves many hours in various waiting rooms – you may have noticed the way the mutual experience seems to draw women together. See if this scenario sounds familiar…

    You’ve been up to the front desk at the chemo infusion suite to announce your presence to the secretary, and now you’re waiting for those swinging doors to open, the nurse to holler your name, and that day’s “fun” to begin.


    You look around, and see a lot of very sick-looking people. The patients themselves are pale and haggard; much of the time, their caregivers look almost as bad. In fact, sometimes the only way you can tell the patients from their accompanying family is to notice which one is wearing a scarf or hat; which one has no eyebrows or eyelashes.

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    Look closely, though; there’s another difference. Many of the caregivers seem stooped with pain, hunched around a burden of grief and stress that consumes them with its enormity.


    But the patients seem more relaxed, more able to deal with what’s going on; they’ll often be reading the paper, browsing the limp, out-of-date magazines (have you EVER seen a current copy of “People” in a hospital waiting room?!), and making eye contact with those around them.


    And that’s how waiting room relationships start–with eye contact, and that mutual look that says “I recognize what you’re going through. I’m there, too. This really stinks, doesn’t it?” The look is usually accompanied by a shake of the head, or a wry smile. And, if you’re sitting close enough to one another, you begin to talk.

    It usually starts out something like this: “How many more do you have?” (That would be, how many more chemo appointments till you’re done?) Then it might continue with “Do you have a port?” (always a good icebreaker), or “How’s your white count holding up?”


    Before you know it, you’ve segued into spouses, kids, work, and, if your kids are more or less the same age, school activities. In other words, you’re having a normal conversation. It’s not two cancer patients talking; it’s two women. And for that short time before you head in for treatment, you almost forget why you’re there; cancer fades, replaced by the comforting normality of casual conversation with a friendly stranger.

    But this is more than a chance, one-time encounter at a bus stop. These brief conversations often continue, day after day (if you’re in radiation), or week after week, maybe even month after month, one building upon the other.


    You find yourself seeing the same women over and over again, women on the same treatment schedule. And pretty soon you know whose son made the varsity soccer team, whose problematic sister is planning a visit and, if you listen carefully enough, who’s scared, or sad, or ready to give up.


    Because from these casual conversations grow friendship, a desperate friendship forged in the heat of battle–the cancer battle. The prospect of death strips us of all edifice, takes us down to our bare souls. We cut to the chase and embrace life, dropping the social artifice that might once have kept us staring straight ahead in the waiting room, or hiding behind a newspaper.


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    We’re not afraid to open up, to share intimate details of our lives that we could never have imagined giving voice to before cancer. We laugh with one another, occasionally we cry, but always we connect.

    And then treatment is over. Sometimes friendships continue; most of the time they don’t, gradually fading in the harsh light of “real life,” life after cancer.


    But you know what? Those human connections you made so easily when you were at your most vulnerable? You don’t have to lose that skill. You don’t have to barricade your emotions behind a façade of “We haven’t been introduced.”


    That friendly smile you had for the stranger in the radiation waiting area? You can use it on the woman in front of you at the grocery store, too. Before you know it, the world is a friendlier place, and all because of the life lessons you learned in the chemo waiting room.

Published On: September 11, 2006