Stella watched the doors slide open.
Walk, she told herself. Walk, you coward, it’s just another appointment. The cool air hit her as she entered, giving her goosebumps.
She strode down the hallway of the hospital, her fists clenched tightly over the straps of her backpack. Besides the registration desk and the alcove to the elevators, the first floor was foreign to her, but she preferred not to ask for help. Asking for directions always made her feel stupid, as if she were once again the only girl in an engineering lecture who could not understand the material. Besides, she didn’t really want to find the room. So she soldiered on, wandering in ellipses to the amusement of the security guard until she somehow discovered her destination.
Room 101 was not inviting. Perhaps it was designed to be, but Stella had long since realized that intentions meant nothing. And really, how could someone overlook the connotation of Room 101? Was this supposed to be symbolic? Even the worn flowered armchairs sat stiffly in an adult imitation of a high school English discussion circle. Glancing around at the assembled faces that had all swiveled towards her when the door opened, Stella muttered a terse greeting as she sank into an empty chair. At least she had been spared the awkward ordeal of initiating small talk. Walking into a room full of women was something she hadn’t done in a while – she usually did the opposite at work – and even in waiting rooms, there were usually the concerned husbands.
She still couldn’t believe that she was actually doing this. Talking about your feelings to a group full of strangers had to be the worst thing in the world. So why was she here again? Oh yes, Dr. Andrews had believed it would be “beneficial to her mental state.” My mental state is perfectly fine, Stella had wanted to bite back. It’s my physical state that’s debatable. Traitorous cells. Stupid DNA that couldn’t even copy itself correctly.
The support group leader specialized in guiding oncological patients. She spoke in the same pseudo-soothing tone that all oncology personnel seemed to use, as if she were a kindergarten teacher talking down to an unruly child. She seemed empathetic – they always did – but Stella turned her attention instead to her fellow sufferers.
The things they carried varied but they all bore scars. Their precise incisions were volatile, fault lines poised on upheaval. Beneath the cuts lay surgical clips embedded beneath the tight tissue, in flesh that had been prodded and pushed again and again, in a few cubic centimeters worth of breast they pored over in anxiety. They carried their histories on their tongues and in their patient forms. They carried doctors’ cards, hospital bills, mammogram reports. A good number of them wore wigs. All wanted to live. All dreaded recurrence. All too often, they caved under the stress and uncertainty, lashing out at others and at themselves. They lugged around questions. What if the margins weren’t clean enough? What if the tumor metastasizes? What if, what if, what if? They didn’t have any answers.
Stella carried two fewer breasts than the average woman. Her decision had been impulsive, driven by a scornful disregard of femininity and irrational anger at biology. Her doctor had pushed for a lumpectomy. “Having a mastectomy, let alone a double one, will do nothing to decrease your chance of recurrence. There’s no need to rush into a decision immediately,” she had said. And faced with such calm, refrigerating rationale, Stella had had nothing to say but, “Thank you, I’ll consider it.” Her mother had been much more blunt – “How will you get a husband with no breasts?!” – to which she had screamed back, “What the hell, Mom, that’s not the point here!” No one needed breasts to be an engineer, Stella had justified to herself – in fact, engineers were better without breasts, according to her misogynistic boss. Nevertheless, she felt an acute sense of betrayal sometimes – betrayal by whom, she was not exactly sure. She carried lipstick in her purse now, tucked next to the cream she used for radiation burns. Perhaps cherry could make up for cleavage.
The support group leader cleared her throat. “Everyone, this is Stella. She’ll be joining us for the next few sessions at least.” At most, you mean, Stella corrected in her head.
“Stella, I want to reassure you that this is a comfortable environment where everyone is free to share her feelings and experiences. I am here to provide you with resources for not only your physical health but also your mental health. I told everyone the first day, and I’ll say this many more times throughout our time together, even if you take away nothing else from these sessions, breast cancer does not define you as a person.”
Wonderful, thought Stella. Yet another person saying everything was going to be fine. Yet another flowery speech with less substance than a simple equation like F=ma. Numbers were so much easier to deal with. They told their story with no opinion of their own. She could scream at them all she wanted, cross them out viciously in black Sharpie, toss them in the trash can, and they wouldn’t talk back.
The support group leader concluded, “So remember, that feeling upset, feeling angry, this is all very normal, but I hope and I really think that being able to talk to other women who are going through the same thing will be very comforting. Okay?”
Stella nodded, lips pressed together into an imitation of a smile, the same expression she painted on her face at work.
“Great! So why don’t you all introduce yourselves?”
Next to Stella was Jenny. A pink ribbon was tied to her purse’s keychain, along with a beaded bracelet that spelled LOVE U MOM. She was going through chemo and not enjoying it. (What a surprise, thought Stella.) Jenny liked to suck peppermints to relieve the dry, metallic taste in her mouth. She was also incredibly hungry from skipping lunch, unable to stomach anything down after her earlier chemo session. Instead, she’d spent lunch reading The Secret History, which was much more enjoyable when docetaxel wasn’t churning through her veins. She recommended the book to everyone.
Next to Jenny was Deb. Her mother had had breast cancer, and so had her grandmother, and her aunt as well, but they’d all had genetic testing done, and there wasn’t a genetic reason. Previously diagnosed with a tumor in the left breast, she was now carrying one in the right. She had scheduled another lumpectomy for the week after.
Stella's own two breasts had been chopped off on a Wednesday afternoon on the ground floor of the hospital. Waiting nervously for hours in the equivalent of a basement, she had imagined Frankenstein constructing his Creature and wondered if they were all playing God, if maybe breast cancer was just another form of natural selection trying to cull out those who were too weak to survive. The walls of the hospital had been a lurid yellow, probably to drive those waiting insane like the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper. She had been almost eager to enter the OR, if only to stop herself from thinking with her mind in overdrive about fate and the probability that she wouldn’t wake up from anesthesia.
The stories didn't stop. They bombarded Stella one after the other, a heavy anthology that she hadn’t asked to read. Stella had expected the typical introduction of “Hi, my name is [insert name], and I’m a [insert career].” But no, these women were way too comfortable with sharing their personal lives. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t sit with a sympathetic expression on her face, nodding along to events she’d never asked to hear about.
And what was she supposed to say when it came to her turn? The truth, that she didn’t want to be here? She was merely checking things off her list at this point: surgery, check; chemo, check; radiation, half check; group therapy, big fat empty box. Talking was useless. How was talking supposed to help cure her cancer? She didn’t carry any words large enough to describe what she was feeling. She didn’t want to hear about everyone else’s experiences, didn’t want to know how others were coping better than her, didn’t want to discuss what treatment she’d had and yet to have and should have, didn’t want to justify to everyone what she was going through.
She stood up abruptly. The armchair scraped against the floor from being pushed back. Everyone’s eyes turned to her in astonishment. The woman who had been talking had her mouth still open from speaking.
“I,” she began, voice faltering. “Excuse me.” She grabbed her backpack and half-walked, half-ran out of the room.
She hurried down the hallways, past the registration desk, and through the big automatic doors of the hospital. She kept her head down. Out of shame, she supposed. Shame for not being able to deal with everything, to have run out like a crazy person.
“Stella? Stella, is that you?”
Stella looked up. “Mrs. Martinez!” she exclaimed and stepped forward into the older woman’s open arms. “How have you been? I haven’t seen you since I graduated.”
“I’m doing well, Stella. You should stop by my classroom again if you have time. But I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t talk now, I’m late for my group therapy session.”
Stella froze, remembering. Mrs. Martinez, her favorite AP English teacher, had been diagnosed with breast cancer Stella’s senior year.
“Are you going to the therapy session in Room 101?” she asked, already anticipating the answer.
Mrs. Martinez stared at her, as if she was back in high school trying to interpret one of Stella’s unfiltered, incoherent answers. “You’ve just walked out of there, haven’t you, Stella?” Stella looked down at her boots. “I suppose the room number is fitting. Discussion was always your greatest fear. Knowing you, you were probably more scared to be in that room than you were when you were diagnosed.”
“That’s not true.” Stella’s nails dug into her palms. Faced with someone who had read her insecurities back in school, she broke down. “I’m terrified. I’m, I’m weak. There are times when I just start crying randomly because I’m not prepared to deal with this. Because I don’t know what the right answer is. All I can do is wait around like an idiot that doesn’t even know if she’s going to die!”
As soon as they were out, she wanted to take the words back. This was worse, so much worse than when she’d messed up at work and her boss had spit on her. She waited for the inevitable look of disgust, the look of contempt that the successful always gave the incompetent.
Mrs. Martinez held her hand tightly. “Thank you, Stella.”
She laughed, a bit hysterically. “For what? For yelling at you?”
“For telling me how you feel.” She paused. “No one expects you to be invincible, Stella. Do you feel better now?”
Stella stayed quiet.
“Well, you know I'm not a chemistry teacher. But I do remember one thing from chem lab, and that was to never heat a closed system.” Stella nodded in agreement. “So why would you do that to yourself, sweetie? You need a way to release all these emotions you’ve bottled up.”
“I won’t go back to that room.”
Mrs. Martinez sighed. “I wouldn’t force you to. I know you don’t like sharing your thoughts with many people. But think about it. Even if group therapy isn’t for you, you still need an outlet. Talk to someone. Talk to me if you feel comfortable. Or why don't you try writing again. Write something other than those equations of yours for once, okay?” Giving Stella a smile and last pat on the shoulder, Mrs. Martinez walked onward.
Stella watched the doors slide open.