Any Way You Slice It
“So, you feel better then?”
I want to slap her.
I’m at my gynecologist’s office – the regular, ordinary gynecologist for once – and in the pre-appointment “so how’ve you been” phase of the appointment, a member of her staff gets confirmation from me that I have not had anything new come up since my ovarian cancer diagnosis. And that is her response.
I don’t have the time or the desire to explain to her exactly how inappropriate that response is. How a cancer patient never really "feels better" after going through that wringer. That this is not the common cold. That the wake of cancer brings its own issues - enough that you never really forget it was there. Instead, I just stare at her blankly until she finally leaves the room.
I strip down and cover back up in the paper-thin, scratchy examination gowns and notice that I am utterly surrounded by photographs of babies and pregnant women. I move around the space slowly, turning each of them over, one by one, so they will just stop mocking me from their two-dimensional world.
* * *
Depending on who you ask, I have various different remission dates this time around. But no matter how you slice it, as of last Friday every single oncologist has to agree that we have passed the one year mark.
By all measuring sticks, we have reached yet another critical milestone.
* * *
I was sitting in my office when the call came. I recognized the number. The call was a day early. And it wasn’t my nurse. She and Dr. Jones were both on vacation.
I stared out the windows as I braced myself to hear the number. But I didn’t get a number.
“Everything looks great,” she told me and started going on about when my next appointment should be.
“Wait,” I interrupted her. “What’s the actual number? What is my CA125?”
“12.5,” she responded. The world started spinning. I fell silent. That silence must have cued her into the fact that this wasn't the routine call she thought it was. “Why? What was it last time?”
“198,” I whispered.
It was November 18, 2016.
* * *
No matter how much faith you have in God and miracles and what it is you know He told you, when it happens you’re still bound to be rocked. I hung up the phone that day and walked dazedly into a colleague’s office. He was in the middle of a conversation but I paid manners no mind and simply blurted out, “I just got a phone call.”
They both turned to look at me.
“Its in remission,” I garbled. “The cancer.”
And then I turned around and walked out of the building.
* * *
“What was the worst part?” she asks me over tea one day.
The question is like some backwards version of Sophie’s choice. How do you rank a series of events and side effects that you can categorize only on a scale measuring from bad to devastating?
But as I stop to think about it for a moment, when I left the weight of the memories allow the ranking to occur on its own, a single event slowly sinks to the bottom – its heft allowing it to drift into the darkest striations of memory.
It was that moment before anything was official but after I really already knew anyway. I was still in that window of plausible deniability. When I could tell myself that I was just overreacting thanks to my lymphoma history. When there was still a chance that I would open my eyes and it would all be a bad dream.
That window was shattered with just a handful of words. In the moment when I expected for Dr. Boardman to pat my knee, laugh, and hug me, assuring me the whole while that your thirties always brought changes to a woman’s cycle, instead she sat down, looked me in the eyes, and said “there is a 98% chance this is cancer.”
It was just weeks before that I finally heard that there was less than a 1% chance that the lymphoma would recur. I had waited so long for those words – for that permission slip to breathe again. And then just like that, I was plunged into the depths again with nearly no time to gulp enough air to carry me through one more time.
I held it together long enough to ask if it was related to the lymphoma.
“No,” she said. “Lightening just seems to have struck twice.”
Hearing you have cancer at 23 is devastating. Finding out you need to do even more chemotherapy for it because your body isn't responding as it should is demoralizing at best. Hearing that a second, unrelated, type of cancer has come for you again less than 15 years later will send you to the brink of insanity. Right there in the exam room, I dissolved into tears amidst my own shrieks of "Why?"
I picked at my muffin, took a sip of tea, and met her eyes.
“Yep. That was the worst part.”
* * *
My brother is in the process of moving and has been doing the requisite purging that comes along with packing. He texted me some old photographs of he and I. They were taken was I was just tiptoeing out of the fog of cancer the first time. It was strange to see the house my boyfriend and I lived in again. Remembering how we spent much of the little money our student-selves had to break a lease and get the heck out of the apartment where we had faced that diagnosis. It was odd to see my body – still so skinny after getting though chemo just to be told that I needed to do more. It was sad to see the look in my eyes – so confident that the storm had passed, while still harboring a fear that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t.
I wanted to scream at her that she only had so much time until the beast would return. That she had no idea the severity of the storm that lied ahead. I wished I could tell her so much, warn her so loudly, rage at her so that somehow things would have been more secure – as if it might have been possible to batten down the hatches such that the storm couldn’t have washed it all away.
But sitting there gazing at that young girl, at images taken a lifetime ago, even as I wished for the opportunity to tell her all the things I know now, I knew it wouldn’t have changed anything.
It had to be this way.
And truth be told, I am grateful it was.
There are no shortcuts to transformation, after all.
* * *
The lights are dim and we are surrounded by food that does not fit in my normal guidelines. I swirl the teabag in my mug, look up at him with tears in my eyes, and say out loud – perhaps for the first time ever – “I am so damn proud of myself.”
I think back to the day the person who promised to whether this storm with me walked out my front door and never looked back. He made it a whole fourteen days (give or take). I can’t blame him. If I’d found an out at that point in this whole thing, I’d have taken it too. Cancer isn’t for the meek – whether you’re the patient or just along for the ride. That same week, my best friend stopped answering the phone. He confessed later that he didn’t know what to say, so he opted for nothing.
My family didn’t come running. I got phone calls and packages, but no one hopped in a car or booked a plane ticket.
For five days I wondered how I would possibly do this without someone walking the road beside me. And while I was fortunate for many caring friends who stepped up and helped, I didn’t have that one person to attend every appointment, to hold my hand in waiting rooms, be there late at night. God designed this time around to be just me and Him – for good reason – but I remember not knowing how in the world I was going to get out of this alive. Pun intended.
But I not only made it out alive, I made it through stronger than I ever could have imagined. Not only through the terror of chemotherapy, but through this first year of remission. Which posed all of its own unique hurdles and challenges and worries.
God and I. We did it.
* * *
“I just want to be better already.”
I am frustrated. Even as we sit there – on the same couch, less than four feet apart, I feel distanced from him. I still feel distanced from everyone. I want it to be over. I want things to go back to the way they were before even as I know that will never be an option.
“Its going to take you as long – and probably much longer – to heal from everything that happened than it did for everything to happen.”
I don’t need him to tell me this, but its nice to be reminded.