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?”
“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.”
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.