Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Month: June, 2012

Passed the Test

I spoke with Dr. H this morning about the small amounts of blood I seem to be passing this week. She already had my CAT scan results and read them to me. No signs of recurrent or metastasized cancer in the abdominal area. I passed the test. She is not bothered by the blood I have been passing and will give me a dipstick for checking that it is from my bladder and no big deal.

At the conclusion of our discussion, she asked me what I thought about the United States Supreme Court’s decision to uphold President Obama’s healthcare plan. The entire plan was not upheld, but the part that requires people to pay a tax if they don’t have insurance will go into effect. I said I just hoped it would make insurance more affordable. Her remark was that we have to buy car insurance. Everyone should be able to get health insurance, too.

Last night was my last night of scheduled classes until school resumes in August. I will be teaching one online class between now and then. I said good-bye to my students and shared their enthusiasm about having finished my class and their paralegal certificate program.

A lot of tests were passed in the last 24 hours. I’m glad that mine was among them.

Scaredy CAT Scan

The robocall came in last week informing me that I would be having a CAT scan on June 27th at 8 a.m. Doctor Z told me this test would take place in July. The county hospital had other plans. So much for planning and predictability. I was supposed to have a blood test 2-3 days before the test, but there was no time for me to do that before the CAT scan. June 27th was my last day of class and I had work to do to get ready for it. Not having been given an option to reschedule, I skipped the blood test and adapted to the circumstances by waking at 3:30 a.m. so that I could have the test. I planned to sleep until 5 a.m., but I tossed and turned and gave up on sleeping.

I sat at the computer and tried to distract my mind from worries over the current state of my health until it was time to leave for the hospital. I passed some blood yesterday and have no explanation for it. That does not sound good to me whether it came from my bladder or some other place. My cancer crisis began with unexplained bleeding.

The problem with worry is that it is as unrelenting as tides, sunrises, sunsets, seasons, and my mom’s patter while I am trying to watch TV. I cannot avoid it and attempts to suppress it end up with me becoming overwhelmed by it. I feel oppressed by the weight of news stories about cancer. Nora Ephron died this week of pneumonia associated with leukemia. Last week there was a memorial service for a woman I worked for in 1994. She died of metastasized breast cancer.

I am 55 years old. I know people who are dying at 61 and 71. That’s not far in the future. But I am not ready to die. What was I doing 6-16 years ago? My life has not changed that much in that timeframe. Will it suddenly tumble down a hill?

At 6 a.m. I sat in my car in the hospital parking lot watching the sun rise over the row of buildings across the street from the hospital. I decided to wait until 7 a.m. before entering the building. Everyone who trolled the parking lot looking for a space paused to pantomime willingness to wait for me to exit. I shook my head. At that point they would communicate frustration with me. I slumped in my seat and recalled the many winter mornings that I waited in my car for the hospital to open its clinics for service. It was dark in those days. No one noticed me while I huddled in the front seat of my car and they made the rounds of the parking lot waiting for a space to open. I always felt like I was alone and invisible in that darkness.

At 7 a.m. I entered the building and ran into a 50+-year-old man wearing bathing trunks and a t-shirt too short to cover his long torso. In light of the size of his protruding gut, he wore his blue bathing trunks slung low and tucked between his belly and his groin. An expanse of hairy belly bore what appeared to be a slice of bacon. I noted it but deliberately looked away because any alternative explanation for it threatened to make me ill. My first thought was that the man exposed himself, but, if so, then his genitalia resembled a fruit roll-up with bacon striping. When I described the sight to one of my students this evening, she speculated that it might have been a withered skin tag. We shuddered over the prospect. He wore flip-flops on this feet. The calves of his legs were hairy. The nails on his toes resembled dried apricots. Maybe he escaped death by a crazed fruit dehydrator.

Suffice it to say that I cringed and ducked to one side when he threw open his arms and said, “Welcome to summer vacation!” I can always count on the county hospital for an adventure.

I passed the long line of patients waiting for the hospital elevators to open and headed for the clinic located across the street. The CAT scan and MRI facility is modern but tacked onto an old hospital across the street from the new hospital. At 7:30 a.m. the doors had yet to be opened. I was the first patient to enter at about 7:50 a.m. The clerk on duty took my I.D. and my proof of county charity coverage and asked me if I had recently had a blood test. I answered that I had not and he became impatient with my failure to follow directions. His tone was dismissive until I explained about the short notice given to me and the fact that the test was to have been given in July. He snorted and informed me that I should check back at the desk before departing and went back to working on his computer. I took a seat. Several minutes later he had some papers for me to sign, which he shook in my general direction. I got up to sign them and he placed a patient I.D. bracelet around my wrist.

Several other women entered the facility while I waited for my name to be called. The TV in the waiting area was set to a program that advertised the Derma Wand, a device that uses radio waves to eliminate facial wrinkles and sagging. I looked at the other patients and realized that no one watched the screen. Even the free TV programming disappoints as you wait for service. You can try to distract yourself from worries over your health, but you soon find yourself wondering whether cancer has returned.

A nurse came in and collected our orders for tests and called out names. Her pronunciation of my name was unintelligible. There was a “Chair-I,” a “Shari, “and a “Mooman” and none of us rose as each of these names sounded foreign to us. Once we realized that there was no one else to respond we rose and followed the nurse to another waiting room.

Once again the TV was set to the same channel. Its “rabbit-ear” antennae were taped to the shelving unit in which the TV had been placed. A large sign warned us not to touch the TV. I sat next to a woman who turned out to be named Joyce, not Shari or Chair-I, or Mooman. She informed me that she was a nurse and that this arrangement was repeated elsewhere in the hospital. She told me that the TV could only receive one channel, undoubtedly the least entertaining one on the “dial.” Needless to say, her recollection of a time when TV stations were selected by spinning a dial meant that she also was in her 50’s.

A technician passed out 1000 ml. bottles of sterile water and styrofoam cups. “Drink all of this,” he informed us. “You have about 1 hour to consume it before your test.” One woman dropped the cup and watched it roll across the floor. She picked it up and drank from it anyway. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine how many germs had collected on the floor and passed to her cup and then to her lips in this haven for disease.

I finished my bottle of water first. It took me 30 minutes. It was warm. It had an aftertaste that made me a little nauseated. A nurse came out of an office, introduced herself to us and told us to drink faster as she could not process us until we had finished drinking water. Then she explained that we should use the changing rooms located around the corner while we removed our bras. She tore off large plastic garbage bags for us to store these garments in while we waited for our tests. I wondered if anyone needed so large a bag for his or her garments. I had a small briefcase with me and stored my bra in it. Then I went back to the waiting room. The nurse called me into her office. She sat directly in front of me so that our knees nearly touched and quizzed me about my health: 1) had I ever had this test before? 2) when? 3) where? 4) did I have high blood pressure? 5) diabetes? 6) any of the following diseases, most of which I never heard of before? 7) cancer? 8) surgery? 9) for what? She stared into my eyes as she made these inquiries as if this were a lie-detector test. Then she installed a little port right in the crook of my arm so that the arm felt useless to me. She tested it. When she was satisfied with its operation, she informed me that I would be injected with a liquid that would provide contrast during the CAT scan. Actually, she said none of that. She simply implied that I would need to flush something from my system after the test by drinking at least 8 glasses of water. I surmised the rest. It was not necessary that I understand what was going on, only that we have some long, intense moments of eye-contact.

I returned to the waiting room and again sat beside Joyce. Moments later the nurse asked me to join her in the corner so that she could ask me my weight. I was directed back to my seat. I know the nurse meant well, but the entire process reminded me of how we used to put on a blindfold and get spun around before we attempted to pin a tail on a donkey. It was hard not to feel dizzy and lost.

Joyce informed me that I looked cold. I was. The room was cold enough to make my fingers numb. She told me that she was having a hot flash. The TV advertised the Food Lover’s Diet. Five of us stared at the screen with no discernable reaction to the program. My bladder was ready to explode. Joyce explained that she had just learned that she had breast cancer. She did not want to know her staging or her prognosis or her chances of survival for 5 or more years. She only wanted to know what the doctors planned to do to her. She told me that she had shared the news of her initial diagnosis with a friend who had immediately reacted by telling her about someone who had recently died of breast cancer.

I told her that I was being treated for uterine cancer. She confided that I was the most calm and serene person that she had so far encountered in the hospital. I was not feeling calm, but I understood how the experience of cancer diagnosis could overwhelm one. She shared with me that she is a pediatric nurse who began her career working with children with cancer until the work burned her out. She told me that she has no medical insurance and that she is terrified that she cannot afford to get well. Then she told me that she is also psychic and her senses informed her that, of the women in the waiting room, I was the one who might be able to answer some of her questions.

My bladder felt like an over-inflated tire as the minutes wore on and no one was called for a CAT scan. I told Joyce that I was not a medical professional and that all this was relatively new for me, too. I explained about the American Cancer Society’s services to patients. I reassured Joyce that she controlled her own medical care and could decide what care she wanted. I described in as few words as possible the county’s charitable program for uninsured patients. I spoke in very general terms about radiation and chemotherapy as I understood that Joyce was not ready to evaluate options. She wanted to know if I lost my hair. She wanted to know if surgery made it impossible for me to work. She wanted no details. She just wanted some reason to believe that a cancer diagnosis was not a death sentence. She wanted to believe that she might still have control over her own destiny. She wanted to know that she was not going to be bald for long, if at all. She wanted someone to tell her she was going to be okay.

I think that everyone sitting there was listening to me, and I was feeling like a fraud because, while everything I said was true, I omitted everything that made my own experience so frustrating, so painful, and so frightening. When Joyce asked me for my phone number, I gave it to her because I have spent hundreds of hours searching the Internet for real stories about cancer and its treatment because I never asked another patient what Joyce asked me. It was months ago that I made plans to join a cancer support group, and I have yet to make it to one meeting because, until last week, I taught on the nights that the group welcomes new members. I could not turn down this stranger’s request for support even if my knowledge is recently acquired and sometimes intuited (as was the case when the nurse and I “discussed” the need to flush contrast fluid from my system). I was reminded of my summer camp experiences when I was a kid. Returning campers would take the hands of new campers and physically lead them to their tents. Sometimes we walked dark trails with our fingers curled around a belt loop on the shorts of the camper ahead of us. We led by following someone else. We reached our destination by stumbling together through places we had never seen. We gave each other courage and, in doing so, we found it had multiplied.

Despite my efforts to stay positive, I must have made someone nervous with my brief description of my life since diagnosis. The only man to have joined the group made a run for it. He bolted from his chair through a door marked “EXIT” and “Authorized Staff Only Beyond This Point.” He still wore a hospital gown and carried his shirt in a plastic trash bag.

I summoned the nurse from her office and she went after him.

The rest of us fell silent.

Joyce gave me her name and phone number. She thanked me for not talking about anything she was not ready to hear and then gave a nod toward the TV, which continued to describe the success of a diet in which people ate more food more frequently. She said, “We all know it won’t work that way because it’s never that easy or none of us would need diets. Nevertheless, we want so much to believe that it can be that easy that we will listen and believe whatever they say.”

I nodded. Then the technician called me for my test. I was instructed to lie down. My port was connected to an IV bag and I was infused with the contrast fluid. I raised my arms over my head and held my breath when instructed to do so. The machine moved me back and forth through a doughnut-shaped scanner. When the test was done I was urged to rest a moment before racing for the bathroom.

It was a relief to empty my poor burnt bladder. I had to struggle my way back into my bra while my right arm continued to be hampered by the port that pinched unbearably in the crease of my elbow. The nurse removed the port and instructed me to press the wound hard until the bleeding stopped. She affixed a huge piece of tape to cover the wound, which tape caught many of the tiny hairs that have started to regrow since chemotherapy’s effects ended.

I waved good-bye to Joyce and stopped at the front desk where the receptionist growled at me for interrupting his computer work, as if he had forgotten that he asked me to let him know when I was leaving.

As I pushed open the clinic’s door and stepped out into the embrace of the ten o’clock sun, I felt like I had left behind a new camper. I felt free but also a little guilty. I found myself hurrying through the hospital’s first floor to the parking garage. I hopped into my car and headed for the exit. I handed a five dollar bill to the attendant and pulled out onto the street and all the nervous fears of the prior night and that morning dissipated like dew on flowers. No matter how comforting it is to have company in the forest while we walk a hazardous path, there is nothing to compare with the sensation (even if fleeting) that one has emerged from the forest. Cancer may follow me, but there are moments when all I feel is free.

Heart Attacks

Having told the story of the mammogram, I now feel it necessary to share the follow-up. My coworker with the pathological fear of cancer had to see a heart specialist after her physician observed an abnormality in her heart during a routine appointment. It turns out that undergoing a stress test is even more terrifying for her than a mammogram. The specialist wanted to put the woman through an actual stress test, but she refused. Many years ago the woman was in a serious car accident that shattered her ankle. She has undergone several surgeries since that time, none of which has helped for longer than a couple of years. She was certain that an actual stress test would induce heart failure due to fear that she would stumble and fall while walking on a treadmill without her cane.

The specialist explained that he could administer a drug that would put stress on her heart and simulate the conditions that would permit him to watch the muscle action of the heart using a sonogram.

My coworker, having no family in the area and no friends who would accompany her after they heard about the mammogram meltdown, asked me to accompany her and I decided that it could not possibly be tougher than a mammogram. That kind of optimism is what the mayor of New York City calls a 32 ounce serving of soda pop glass half overflowing. It should be taxed. It should be banned. It should be clear to any rational person that no good will come of it. I like a challenge.

We went back to the same hospital and went to another massive waiting room that we managed to clear in ten minutes of loud, angst-filled queries about the necessity of undergoing the test. My coworker was certain that she would die when they injected her with their liquid stress. She wanted a sedative, which was inconsistent with the notion of stress. Someone came out to usher us into a back room that was in the middle of renovation. Painters had paused in their work. Someone directed us to two chairs hastily dragged behind two sofas tipped up on their sides. Even the immense cushioning of two sofas did little to muffle the rising tone of hysteria my coworker gave off as the clock someone had rested on the floor clicked its way in circles from the corner.

“This way,” a nurse coaxed us down the hall to an examination room.

I would have liked to wait in the public area, but my coworker had bonded with my forearm like we had been dipped in Gorilla Glue. She dragged me with her. Once again I stood witness as she shimmied out of her clothing and into a hospital gown. I folded her garments and set them atop the bag of provisions that I had brought with me in case this, too, turned into an all-day event. I had some cookies, an apple juice box, and several business cards in case I needed to negotiate for my coworker’s release from psychiatric observation.

The doctor came in to explain the procedure. He assumed, as did everyone else in the room, that I was there in some very personal capacity, rather than as a coworker. He kept on reassuring my friend that many heart anomalies proved irrelevant to longevity. My friend would have none of it.

“What if I die while you’re making my heart race?” she asked.

The doctor, probably in his twenties, looked at me, possibly realizing for the first time that this was not going to be as stressful for the patient as it might be for him. I smiled. “She isn’t entirely rational. The last time she had a test we needed a psychiatric consult.” Then I scrunched up my nose like this was just a joke.

The doctor turned to a gowned nurse who had laid out a tray while we spoke.

“If I die I want you to have me revived,” my friend insisted while the nurse prepared to insert a port into her inner arm. Someone else began to lower the head of the hospital bed on which the patient was sitting. “Oww, oww,” moaning commenced as the core was engaged and the muscles of her back and abdomen began to clench.

“We haven’t begun the test yet,” the doctor said. He perched up on the ledge beside the window to make room for the sonogram technician as she prepared her equipment.

My friend was panting as the nurse introduced a needle into a vein. “Oww, oww.”

I took a half-step back, not certain what might happen next. My back hit the wall. No place to run. No place to hide. The nurse put a blood pressure cuff on my friend’s upper arm and proceeded to take some starting measurements. “One-forty-five over eighty,” she said. I don’t recall the heartbeat.

“Go ahead,” the doctor said.

As soon as the I.V. bottle began its drip there was such a clatter of arms against the sides of the hospital bed as to imply we were animating a wild animal. The technician, who had been standing by with her equipment, flinched. But she gamely proceeded to unsnap the gown at the shoulder and draw it down to uncover my friend’s chest. She attached some electrodes and spread a chilly gel over my friend’s chest. My friend reached out for me and got air. “Help,” she wailed.

I took her hand. The drug had started working. Heartbeat accelerated. An angry blush spread over my friend’s upper torso. I was prepared for great amounts of panicky anguish. My friend starting crying.

“We need her to turn onto her side, facing me,” the technician explained. The nurse joined me on my side of the bed.

“Try to roll over,” the nurse said.

“Rotator cuff, rotator cuff!”

The nurse handed me a pillow and took one for herself. The two of us worked in unison to roll my friend over onto her side while she huffed and puffed and cried like a baby. It took both of my hands and all the weight I carried to prop her up while the nurse shoved more flat little pillows into the crevice between back and bed. My friend reached back and tried to grab my arm but caught my right breast in her fist.

“Yikes,” I announced as I tried to back up some more while keeping my arms braced against her back.

No one heard me in the din my friend created. “That’s my boob, not my elbow,” I yelled.

She released me like I had sprayed her with a firehose. It would have been so much easier if she had just reached forward and wrapped her hands around the rails on the other side of her hospital bed, but this was not the time to expect an exercise of self control. The doctor had hopped down off of his ledge and stood by like he was examining a rare medical condition rather than a hysterical outburst worthy of a scene in The Exorcist. The sonogram technician was doing her best to get a reading from her instrument, which she had applied to a now smooshed cleavage heaving like a freight train.

The doctor looked at me. “It doesn’t hurt,” he said finally.

I nodded.

He reached for a hypodermic needle and an ampoule of some drug that might counter the stress effect if it became impossible to continue. My friend bucked like a bronco and kept on wailing insensibly. Someone knocked on the door and barged in to see what was going on. We had an audience now. More smocked doctors tried to enter the room.

I was tempted to start laughing, but the truth is that my friend was in great distress so I took over. “That’s enough crying,” I said firmly. I leaned over the bed and got close enough for her to see my face, for me to smell the fear emanating from her pores. “There’s nothing wrong with your heart. Look at the screen. It’s pumping just like it’s supposed to.”

“There’s a flutter there,” the doctor said, trying not to use a technical term that might elicit more terror in his patient.

I shot him a look meant to say, “Way to not help me calm the raging wave of panic that you had to shoot up with an artifically induced heart attack!” We might have gotten the desired effect with a placebo, but someone had to go giving her the real thing as some type of experiment.

There were enough hands on the patient to have subdued her, if she were a normal woman. Fear had galvanized superhuman strength and animal instinct for self-preservation into a cacophony of anguish and a hard to hold mass of pumping muscles.

I honestly can no longer recall how we finished the test. Sometimes memory fails us to prevent us from dwelling on things too painful to comprehend.

It turns out that my friend’s cardiac abnormality was much less dangerous than her general physician had feared. It also was much less dangerous than her reaction to an artifically induced stress test. “I’m going to tell your referring doctor that I would not advise repetition of this test . . . .”

“It would be helpful if you also ruled out the possibility of another mammogram,” I said it like he would know my friend’s entire medical history.

He blinked at me before proceeding to back out of the examination room. The nurse, whose gown looked like she had dragged it out of a hamper, smiled like she was getting blood flow to the arms again now that my friend had settled down. The technician was gathering a tape for her file. She seemed in a hurry to escape our company. I moved our stuff off of the chair and sat down to catch my breath.

“I think that went well,” my friend offered. She was not at all abashed by having inflicted on all of us a massive dose of insanity.

“You grabbed my boob and twisted it like wet laundry,” I offered.

She shrugged, then rubbed her own shoulder, as if it was the event’s most tragic casualty.

“The next time your doctor recommends you undergo a test I want you to decline it,” I said.

The technician tried to hide a smile.

“At least we’re getting out of here without having to speak with a psychiatrist,” I said.

My friend looked confused.

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten that the last time we were here they wanted to keep you for psychiatric observation.”

My friend buttoned her shirt. “No. I don’t recall that at all.”

“You also threatened the hospital staff with lawsuits for having scared you nearly to death.”

She shook her head. “I can’t remember any of that happening.”

Dementia is a tragedy. It deprives its victims and their families of memories and makes them strangers at a time when they want to cling to each other because time has become a shrinking commodity. Selective amnesia is a blessing. It is an antidote to stress that selectively permits us to escape memories so traumatic that were we to relive them we might want to kill someone. The fact that I cannot remember what happened during my friend’s stress test but can still recall learning that I had cancer suggests to me that there are things scarier than cancer. The next time I think I cannot handle my fear of it, I’m going to go into my storage room to look for the journal I kept during the year of the stress test and gain some perspective on what is scary and what is merely life threatening and scarring. I have to hope that those lost minutes spent subduing someone else’s greatest fears will help me master my own–or make me laugh so darn hard that I find the strength to soldier on.

Cancer Was My Thing

A friend has told me that she has begun having post-menopausal bleeding. That is the warning signal that I weighed improperly prior to the diagnosis of my uterine cancer.

My friend is afraid, as am I. She wants to “get around to” seeing a doctor. I think we should be going to see one now. The first thing she said when I voiced my desire for her to seek medical advice was that she would decline the type of treatment I accepted because it would be better to die than to survive cancer. I know that she did not mean that. It is an idea we try on for size, like our mothers’ high-heeled shoes when we were young and a parent’s wheel chair when they are old.

I do not want to share this cancer thing with the people about whom I care. I want them to be well and happy. I want them to enjoy life and feel insulated from its worst tragedies. I cannot make it so, but I can dream, can’t I? I can dream that my friend will see the doctor and he will say that they have caught something at so early a stage that it is just an outpatient procedure to undergo before she is fit as ever.

I came home from her house and went to my bedroom (remember when I could not bear to sleep in a bed, much less lie in it?). I stepped up on the footstool and hopped up onto the bed. The bedspread is a floral quilt in soothing pastels. The room smells like the Orange-Glo I used only this morning when I dusted my furniture and mopped the hardwood floor. I curled on my side with one of those U-shaped pillows wrapped around my neck. I turned on the little fan that sits on my nightstand. I dragged a second quilt over me. I huddled in the silence and wondered when things were going to go back to being normal.

I know the answer. I have pondered the question before. And I acknowledge that I am forever changed by my own medical crisis and recovery. But it seems monumentally unfair that others will have to do this, too, and that I will be unable to do more for them than they did for me.

I do not even know that my friend has cancer. She just had a mole removed. She feels certain that it was cancerous, too. Two cancers at the same time? Too much to contemplate.

I guess the good thing is that we are friends. I will be there for her like she has been there for me. Not everyone has it in her to stand by a friend in dark times. But I can do it. That is something in life that has not changed.

I am thinking of a former coworker who is paralyzed with fear by even the remotest possibility of her having cancer. Years ago she went for a routine mammogram and took me along. I drove to the hospital and accompanied her inside the building. I waited with her while the lab took its time to prepare. She begged me to go with her into the dressing room to keep her company while she changed into a hospital gown. I went along even though she was not someone I had expected to see naked in my lifetime. She ended up needing help with the gown’s ties. We ended up walking out of the locker room into another waiting room. I sat there while she proceeded on to the lab for the test.

When she emerged she was pale and upset. The preliminary result was that there was a dark mass on the image. The technician had tried to take a second mammogram, but my coworker had been trembling so vigorously that they could not produce a readable image. We needed to come back for a second mammogram. I promised to accompany the woman, but I knew even then that this would prove a daunting event for both of us.

It was that and more.

On our second try we were sent to a different part of the hospital for the test. My friend spoke loudly about her fears, much more loudly than was necessary. We appeared to be surrounded by cancer patients. My friend’s agitation was contagious. It was not long before some of the other patients started to flutter. It was like a fox had peered into a hen house. Fear became palpable in that room in the same way that silence can take over a stadium before a critical play. I found myself saying things like, “Hush. It’s going to be okay.” I tried not to meet others’ eyes because I was embarrassed by my friend’s certainty that she would soon die.

I know that people say that misery loves company, but it is not always true. What is true is that misery always seems to find company.

A nurse took my friend back to the lab for the mammogram then returned for me. “I think you should join us for the test. Your friend is getting hysterical.”

She was. Oh my. As we approached the lab I could hear her saying, “Rotator cuff! Rotator cuff!” She did not want to raise her arms over her head. As the technician urged her forward into the glass plates’ crushing clasp, she was uncooperative, “No, no. That’s painful.” She was losing control. A wail escaped and slithered beneath the closed door. The nurse dragged a chair from a nearby office and set it outside of the door. I sat down and closed my eyes.

The lab door opened and the technician came out into the hall. “Are you Cheryl?”

I nodded.

“Can you do something with her?” The technician’s exasperation was almost funny.

I took a deep breath and rose from the chair. I entered the lab and saw that my coworker stood on a pedestal with her arms raised, her breast trapped between glass and an expression reminiscent of a silent scream.

“Calm down,” I said gently. “It will be over in a couple of seconds if you can just calm yourself.”

“I’m dizzy,” she said with the kind of petulance one expects from children rather than fifty-year-old women.

“That’s it,” announced the technician. She moved to release the breast from the vise in which it had been trapped. Fear’s tyranny proved much more difficult to disengage.

My coworker staggered back as if she might collapse. The nurse ran for a wheelchair. I grabbed my coworker by the elbow and tried to steady her until we could back her up to the chair and lower her into it.

“Let me see if I can get her some juice to sip,” the nurse said as she slipped away. The technician and I stood on either side of the wheelchair like sentries. My friend looked like she might bolt.

“You’ve had this test before,” I said. “And I honestly don’t believe you have cancer.”

My friend gripped my wrist and stared at me through wide eyes that looked a little crazed. “Do you mean that? You really don’t think I have cancer.”

“That’s right.” I smiled and tried to release my wrist from her grip.

My friend looked at the technician and produced a snarl, “Cheryl is my attorney and she’s going to sue you and this hospital for scaring me half to death.”

I looked into the technician’s eyes and shook my head ever so slightly to reassure her that only one of us wanted that outcome.

The technician backed away as if this was her last day before retirement and we were deliberately torturing her for her coworkers’ entertainment. The nurse returned with a tiny can of orange juice. “Drink this,” she said. “The sugar will help you.”

My friend sucked down the juice in one burst of energy, then she wailed again. The nurse reached behind her to slam the hallway door so others would not wonder if we were skinning cats back there.

“What now?” I asked.

“My stomach is empty and filled with acid and that juice has given me heartburn.”

“Already?” Two of us reacted simultaneously to this declaration.

“I’m going to throw up!” My friend announced and bent at the waist.

The nurse grabbed the chair, spun it back toward the door, grasped the knob, whipped the door open, and started hustling for a bathroom at the end of the hall. I grabbed handbags and jumped into action behind her.

My friend ended up suffering a lower intestinal reaction to the anxiety she experienced. I stood in the hallway wondering what karmic wrong I had done to deserve this event.

When my friend emerged from the bathroom, the nurse and I helped her back into the wheelchair. I followed as we headed back to the lab. When we got there we met a physician. The physician explained that they were going to try a sonogram instead of a mammogram. “You have dense breasts,” she explained. “We’re just trying to get a better image than we did during your last mammogram.” At this point the doctor looked at me. “She refused to stand still last time, too.”

I suppressed a smile at the idea that I could control another adult under these circumstances.

“She’s going to sue you,” my friend repeated. “All of you.”

“Maybe we should try a sedative while we wait for the sonogram machine to become available?” The nurse asked. The physician seemed startled by the suggestion that anyone needed to be rendered senseless to undergo a non-invasive, painless test.

They moved us to a waiting room with no one else in it, undoubtedly concerned that we might again contaminate the mood in the room from which we had originated.

I tried reasoning with my friend. “Come on now. We cannot get out of here unless we can pull things together long enough for them to do this test. If you can just get through it I’ll take us to a nice restaurant for lunch.”

“It’s two o’clock,” my friend said.

It was. We already had been at the hospital for nearly six hours.

They ended up putting us in a microscopically tiny room with a hospital bed and a sonogram machine. It took me and two technicians to transfer my friend from the wheelchair to the bed. I tried to back out into the hallway at that point, but no one wanted me to leave by that time. Someone had gotten the idea that my name was Cheryl Friend and that my friend and I were lesbian partners.

That part was funny even then because I kept thinking, no good deed goes unpunished.

I ended up standing beside the hospital bed holding my coworker’s hand in mine while the technician uncovered her breast and began to slide the sonogram’s wand over it. And I was telling my coworker what I saw on the screen as the test continued. “It looks clean as a whistle. No masses.” If you’re wondering how I knew, keep on wondering. I had never had a sonogram. I just said what my friend needed to hear. And she stared up at me and bought every word of it.

The physician stepped out into the hallway and returned with a psychiatrist. My shoulders were shaking with the laughter I could no longer contain as all of us were introduced and once again I was described as my friend’s partner, Cheryl Friend. I was at the time a partner at the law firm where we worked. I doubted that anyone would speak frankly in my presence if they knew how little I knew about their patient’s health. As a result, I decided not to clear up anyone’s misconceptions.

“We’d like to check your partner in for 24 hours of observation,” the psychiatrist explained. “Her behavior today appears to be erratic and irrational.”

“I agree completely,” I said. “But I’m taking her with me anyway.”

All of us looked down at her. Now that the test was over, the sedative had kicked in and she was looking like she might fall asleep.

The physician and psychiatrist exchanged meaningful looks.

“She is terrified of having cancer and has worked herself into a frenzy,” I explained. “She doesn’t have cancer, does she?”

The physician shrugged. “We haven’t formally read the sonogram results, but I don’t think the images we saw were consistent with a diagnosis of cancer.”

I nodded. “That’s good. It means we don’t need observation. I’ll take her home and she’ll go to bed and be fine in the morning.”

The psychiatrist shook her head, as if she had become disoriented. “If you promise to see her home.”

“I promise.”

The technician turned off her machine and squeezed past me into the hall. “Are you some kind of therapist?” she asked me.

“I just play one on TV,” I said and winked at her.

Everyone laughed, but the two doctors stayed out in the hallway for several minutes, watching us until I managed to get my friend up in the hospital bed.

After we walked back to the locker room and got her dressed, we were shown to a back door that dumped us into a staff hallway. We wandered down the hallway and eventually exited near an elevator that we took back to the first floor.

This memory is what finally eased the tension I had been feeling about the possibility that one of my good friends now might have cancer. I am remembering that fear can make you so sick that you can lose your mind. I am remembering that a friend’s certainty that we can manage the situation and that it is no big deal is better medicine than the wonders of science can produce. I am remembering that every cancer scare does not end in surgery, treatment, or debilitating injury. Sometimes a thick breast is just a thick one and not a sick one.

Whatever challenge is headed my way, I can handle it. And my friends are tough, albeit eccentric and sometimes a little silly. They will handle what comes, too. But first things first–we’re going to see a doctor and have a test done before we bring the hospital down with our mighty mojo and mass insanity. Cancer is my thing and I will not be paralyzed by it.

Cancer Comes Calling

Yesterday a former student contacted me to tell me that her cancer has returned.  I felt my pulse start to race when she shared the news. I had to force myself not to let my head drop into my hands because it was not my cancer and she needed to feel confident that this time her doctor would find a treatment that would end this nightmare for her. But it felt, in that instant, like my nightmare had returned. I was scared, too. My eyes teared up. I tasted bile at the back of my throat. I had to resist the trembling that began in my fingers and started to radiate up my arms toward my torso.

She is only twenty-six years old. She has cervical cancer. She just got engaged to a man who longs to start a family after they are married. She has numerous other complicating interpersonal situations to handle while she decides how to next treat this disease.

It is her health situation and her personal situation, but I can think of little else today. It is awful that someone so young has to face this disease twice in the same year. When she was first diagnosed, she elected a very limited treatment. She had the affected cells of her cervix frozen to remove them. She declined to have a hysterectomy or undergo radiation or chemotherapy because she wants to have children. I understand her courage in turning down treatments that would deprive her of a dream that a twenty-six-year-old woman does not want to throw away.

When I was twenty-six I did not think that I would ever need a contingency plan for cancer. I imagined that I would live a very long life. I counted on it.

I did not imagine I could have cancer until it no longer required any imagination to contemplate it. I had cancer. All I could think was, get it out of me. I had it in an organ that I could survive having removed. Everyone is not that “lucky.” You can have cancer in your blood. There are organs we can survive having removed, but life never returns to what it was after some of these organs have been removed. I read today that Sheryl Crow recently announced she has a benign brain tumor that may have developed as a result of radiation therapy she received to treat her breast cancer. Some sources say that there probably is no link between the tumor and the cancer treatment. No one knows what caused her condition. But I can tell you what caused my concern that my radiation may have planted the seed for another cancer–speculation published in the news. Should I stop reading altogether?

I picked up a novel, hoping to distract myself from my obsession with cancer news. I did not get far into the plot of Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters (Berkley Books 2011) before I learned that the sisters in question were gathering to help their mother through treatment for breast cancer. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

I have spent so many of the last six months wondering if my own approach to cancer was too conservative or conservative enough. I underwent chemotherapy and external radiation and have declined internal radiation because the radiation I did undergo has caused serious injury to my previously healthy bladder. I have asked myself if I did enough as often as I have wondered if I was hasty in agreeing to the treatment I underwent. There are no answers to these questions. The science itself is inexact.

All that any of us ever know is that cancer is a daunting opponent. It can reside inside us. It can feed off of any number of things that we do in life that give us pleasure or save us time. Yesterday I waited in a drive-thru lane to buy a bottle of water and asked the cashier at window 1 to suggest to his supervisors that they post a sign in the drive-thru lanes saying, “Thank you for not smoking while we serve you.”

He thought it was a great idea. But I’m guessing that people who wait in fast food lanes are not all that keen on making healthy choices. Moreover, even if the others waiting in the drive-thru lanes were to spare me their secondhand smoke, I’d be breathing the exhaust from their tailpipes, wouldn’t I? I could stop for water at the store, but there are folks standing outside of it puffing cigarettes, too. I could bring water from home, but it gets warm so fast even when I stick it in the thermal bag I bought for that purpose. I carried warm water for awhile in reusable plastic bottles until I read that they might be allowing toxins to leach into the water before I drank it.

The local 5 p.m. news program always offers the latest in health news. One day the reporter told me that dark chocolate is good for me. The next day the same reporter told me that the additional fat in even small quantities of dark chocolate consumed daily could make the difference in my battle against high cholesterol–a negative difference.

This week The New York Times published a commentary on the case against consumption of salt. Salt has been on medicine’s “hit list” for some time, but the author of this new article explained that the scientific evidence does not support the warnings against consumption of salt. It may be that reduction in salt consumption causes more health problems for some Americans than it averts. Eggs also faced condemnation and now return to the table as science vindicates them. However, this week I read a report on the conditions of hens caged for the production of eggs that made me wonder whether I might do better to give up eating eggs altogether.

I have no idea what is the right choice any longer. The truth is that none of us get out of this existence alive. All I know for sure is that the return of cancer scares me. It leads me into a maze that has more twists and turns than a roller coaster and offers no warning of the hazards that lie ahead until it is too late to avert them.

So I had to say to my former student that I was going to pray for her. And I urged her to speak with her parents and her fiance as soon as possible about the cancer threat so that she could receive their love and support as she faces new choices about dealing with an old enemy. I acknowledged that the return of cancer might mean the end of her dreams of having children and of having her fiance’s love. At that point I could no longer hold back my tears because the one thing I could share with this young woman was an appreciation of the threat that cancer represents in any life. It never comes at a good time. Its treatment never comes at a price you can manage without suffering. It has the capacity to take from you everything you hold dear. It forces you to make choices that you have to live with or die for having made. It is bigger than you can imagine, more insidious, more scarring, more scary than you want to imagine. You never get to see it or reason with it. It is the danger that lies within that scares the worst. What is more scary than a call from the police telling you that the call you received in which your life was threatened has been traced to a room in the home in which you are hiding? Once the evil hides within, no place ever feels safe again.

At the end of our conversation I feared that I had let this young woman down because I could not maintain the message that she could win this battle. I was only able to say that she was tough enough to handle whatever will happen next. Today I am forgiving myself because no one has been able to convince me either that I will win this battle. That’s not a gift anyone can give at this time, but, oh, how I wish I could. How I wish I could.

Four Kind Words

“How are you feeling?”

I saw Martha, my immediate supervisor today and she actually asked me how I was doing. She has not said anything much to me since I was terminated for having cancer. She certainly hasn’t mentioned my health.

I answered honestly. I’m doing pretty well. My hair is growing back in. I’m feeling stronger.

I am a lawyer so understand why people engaged in conflict stop asking polite questions, but I am a person, too. I appreciated the return to ordinary conversation. It has been a lonely year in many respects. I have attended meetings with colleagues and felt less than collegial even though most of my colleagues have no information about what is happening and so have no reason to inquire about me. The subject of my health was the subject over which my employers and I disagreed. Accordingly, no one felt comfortable asking even such mundane questions as how are you feeling. Thank you to all my friends from other aspects of my life. This could have been so much worse if I had to get through it without your calls, emails, cards, and visits.

I know a woman who is a hypochondriac. She never has a bruise. It’s a hematoma. She claims to have had infections without cures yet later cannot quite recall what ailed her when one inquires as to how she’s doing. She sees at least one doctor every week. She monitors her blood pressure, her pulse, and her blood glucose regularly. She once made an appointment to see her doctor to discuss a dream she had in which she was ill. She suffers from numerous complaints that I have never seen discussed elsewhere. When her contemporaries suffered from hot flashes, she made us leave restaurants and go elsewhere because she had hot feet. She got a disabled parking tag because she has a “trick knee” that can go out at any time but never has when I have been with her.

One of my family members warns us before we see this woman that we must be careful not to inquire about her health. “Don’t even ask how she’s doing because once you do she will never hush up.” Asking about another’s health is usually a social nicety. But it can become a bottomless pit of need if one has nothing else in one’s life to discuss.

I hope I have other things in life to discuss in addition to my health. I would hate to think that one day that might be the only subject I knew anything about. That’s one of the things that was so upsetting when the law school reassigned my students to other teachers’ classes. I was defined by a health condition. I became unreliable. I became unnecessary. I became a liability. I was sidelined for the rest of the season. I was benched. I was marginalized. And the subject matter of my condition became something we could not discuss without risking making our relationship worse.

So those four kind words meant more to me than Martha will probably ever realize. Instead of my health being the thing that isolates me, it has gone back to being something people ask about to be polite.

The next time Martha asks me how I am feeling I will answer with four equally kind words, “I am feeling better.” Maybe if I let it go at that neither one of us will need to say more to mend our fences and go back to being good neighbors.


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