In May 2014, Lena Meeks arrived at the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center (SSCBC) in search of a second opinion.
A mammogram had revealed a small lump in her breast, and she had undergone a lumpectomy. The doctor treating her at the time wanted her to submit to radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells, but Lena wanted the experts at the Spielman Breast Center to decide.
That same month, Nila Whitfield went for a mammogram, which also showed a lump. Both women found themselves in the SSCBC Radiation Oncology waiting room, alone and afraid. They wouldn’t be alone for long, though. Since that encounter, their friendship has become a source of strength, joy and love for each of them.
Women would gather in the waiting room, nervous about their upcoming treatment, huddled with their own thoughts. But then something magical happened. They started to talk. They shared their fears about radiation. How badly would it hurt? Would their bodies be scarred?
They talked about their families. They cheered one another on as weeks of therapy went by. They brought each other small gifts—snacks, bracelets, candles. They attended each other’s bell-ringing ceremonies—joyful finales when survivors ring a large, loud bell to signify the end of their treatment.
“It has been incredible to watch these women come together here,” says Tina LaPaglia, lead radiation therapist at the SSCBC.
Lena and Nila realize more than ever that people sometimes encounter experiences that shift their courses, dividing their stories into “before this happened” and “after.” New things become important, and old things fall away as people become different versions of themselves. For both Lena and Nila, fighting—and beating—breast cancer was that kind of experience.
But they also found that those experiences can be isolating. Nila remembers one friend who did not understand why she could no longer go to happy hours at the last minute or why she needed to rest after treatment rather than hanging out.
“I was really affected by radiation,” Nila says. “I’m a very active, type-A person. I’ve got six and seven things a day on my calendar. All those things stopped because beating cancer was my priority.”
But Lena got it.
“She and I went through it together,” Nila says.
The two now volunteer at the SSCBC, spending their volunteer time in the waiting room with women who need a friend.
When a woman tells Lena she’s scared, or that she can’t take the pain, Lena listens. Sometimes she shares her own story.
“I’m always making it known that we are all the same, but we just have different stories,” she says. “And I tell everybody: ‘This was hard, but you gotta keep going. You just keep going.’”