12 chairs are formed in a circle.
Women start filling them, all walking in with smiles, with details of pink decorating their clothes and jewelry. Some women with hair, some with only an inch. All with pride.
These women are not related. But the one thing they do have in common, they have all battled or are currently battling breast cancer.
As I sit in my gray plastic chair, I take in the atmosphere. Light and heavy at the same time. The women look at each other with care and love, the words leaving their mouth all sound hopeful.
From my seat, I find myself in awe. I am extremely emotional and no one has even started talking to me yet. This is for my job, I tell myself.
And it is. But it’s so much more than that.
Sometimes, I think of my sister and her medical history, and I ache for hope. I ache for some sense of togetherness in a world that sometimes makes us feel alone. I long to understand what she has been through.
As a journalist I get to do amazing things. Meet amazing people. This is one of those things with some of those people. Sitting in at a breast cancer support group. Hearing their stories, being given the honor to listen.
As the group starts, I can tell my presence is making the women nervous. I chose to be more dressed up. My young appearance can often be a hindrance when I am reporting. But in that moment, I just wanted to hug those women. Remind them I am human.
The group leader announces who I am, and I see everyone hesitantly smile. “Do I say I’m scared too? Do I say this is hard for me? Do I admit why I am really here?” Questions race through my mind, I wish I could slow them down for long enough to answer.
My heart is racing as I stand addressing all the women in the group.
“My name is Katie Visconti, I am with the Las Vegas Sun…” I pause, trying to formulate what to say next. “People don’t get mammograms or self-check because they don’t think cancer will happen to them. They have all read the article with the same stats, but it’s not personal to them. This is personal,” I stop, looking at each woman. “ You are all advocates for self-love and self-care now. I’m just hoping that this will really sink in for people, there will be a voice associated with those statistics.”
The women still look nervous. I can tell not many want to open up. So I continue,
“My sister had cancer. She was 15. I still don’t understand it, and to be honest, cancer was never important to me until it was my own flesh and blood. I want to share the importance of check-ups. You being here tonight, theres a reason for it. Your stories could save a life.”
One woman nods through welled eyes.
And suddenly, everyone is talking. About the hard parts, the messy parts, the times they doubted everything and everyone.
Women begin to share the importance of loving themselves, caring for themselves, “everyone should get a mammogram!” some yell.
“You have to take the time to understand what you body is telling you.”
“You have to be an advocate… for yourself!”
“Cancer lead me to find compassion.”
“Cancer was my wake-up call.”
“Cancer made me realize to not sweat the small stuff”, say one woman, “Or the big stuff!”, another chimes in.
I am blown away by these courageous, beautiful woman. And even though they were strong for so long, they admit it has not always been easy.
“Losing your hair isn’t scary because you feel naked or ugly, it’s scary because you finally realize you are sick. For me, losing my hair made me realize, ‘I am a cancer patient.’”
I ask the women a question I was scared to hear the answer to, “What does it feel like to hear, ‘You have cancer?’” The whole room responds, so quickly that I don’t get names, just the honest replies.
“Like being sucked into a dark hole.”
“Your whole world shifts.”
“The rug was pulled out from under me.”
“It’s like being dropped in a foreign country, and suddenly you are trying to understand a foreign language. And they are telling you it’s time to make the most important decisions of your life.”
“It was a Thursday afternoon…” one 62-year old woman drifts off in memory. “They said cancer would never hurt, but it did.”
At this point my heart is longing to understand a world I have not yet been apart of. My body has not endured a pain like this. This discovery doesn’t make me feel ‘lucky’, I know at this point in my life, I am endlessly blessed. But I have to say, looking at this women made me realize, whatever may happen to me, I hope I have half of the grace that these women, these women who were just strangers 20 minutes ago, have. I hope I radiate the light that they so brightly casted on me.
I asked what remission is like. The spitfire of the group replies, “My doctor said, ‘You’re in remission!’ and I replied, “I’m not in remission, I am done with cancer.”
I am now laughing with the women, listening to stories, I am trying so desperately to soak all of it in. My heart is filled with snapshots I will never rid of.
I thank the women before leaving, and begin crying. I hope I see them again. I hope they live a long, beautiful life. I pray, I pray that they be granted another great adventure.
“You brought something very special to the group tonight”, one woman says. And suddenly, three of them are crying.
My goodness, this life is such a beautiful gift.