Most of the time, I love my job. It is unbelievably wonderful to get paid to be a good person in the world, to be kind, to sort out problems for people, to help them feel better. It’s really good for the soul, and I often think that I’m getting more out of it than my patients are.
One of the wonderful things about my job is the conversations I get to have with people. While you are sitting in someone’s kitchen or livingroom, and you are massaging the knots out of their neck or teaching them how to walk better, you can find yourself discussing the most amazing things. With one of my patients, a lady in her late sixties recovering from a fall, our favorite topic is clothes, and our favorite clothes to talk about are shoes. And our favorite shoes to talk about are high heels, which neither of us wear very often, she not really at all anymore, and me only when I’m getting very dressed up. Indeed, we have talked specifically about the shoes on this page, which I described to her in loving detail during one visit, and during another, drew a picture of for her. That conversation then involved our extrapolating the kind of outfit one would wear with such shoes, what dress, what hat, what lipstick, what jewelry, and even, what occasion and what automobile one should transport oneself in wearing such shoes.
Then IT slipped out. It was an accident, and I think it was in the context of talking about “retail therapy,” but I realized after I said what I said that I had just let out that I’d had breast cancer. It is decidedly not on my list of appropriate subjects to discuss during my work visits. Shoes, yes. My health problems, no.
Now, this woman is only about 15 years older than I am, but, as many of my patients do, she regards me as something like a niece, or like a daughter that she doesn’t fight with or have issues with and who is happy to come over and see her. It’s a very dear and privileged regard in which to be held, and it is one of the things I love about my job. It’s like I have a half dozen or so surrogate moms or aunts at any given time, and the fact that the women I treat decide to take on this role with me helps to equalize a rather unequal relationship in which I am the authority figure handing out advice and homework. As the older, wiser women, they get to hand out some observations about the big world, and they do, fondly and humorously and sagely. So, when this woman and I both realized that the fact of my breast cancer had been accidentally plunked on the table, she responded as such a woman might respond toward a niece. We had both been standing up, because I’d been getting ready to go, but she stopped abruptly and slowly sat back down at her kitchen table, with a stricken look on her face. “When?” she said. “Last summer and fall,” I said. “Dear God!” she said. “That’s only six months ago!”
Our conversation extended for a few more minutes, during which she told me that her stepdaughter had had breast cancer about five years ago in her forties, and how it broke her heart to watch her go through what she went through, although she was all right now. We continued on to have that shorthand conversation that occurs between “those who know,” about the high and low points of the infamous scorched-earth treatment protocol one must endure, and the horrible fact of recurrence risk, and the anxiety, and the lack of knowledge of what causes breast cancer, and the breathtaking number of women who are affected by it every year. As I was leaving, she said, “God love ya, Darlin’, to be doing for other people when you’re dealing with this. You must be terrified.”
It was almost a throwaway observation. But it stopped me in my tracks. I know from terrified. I’ll never forget the unvarnished terror I felt when I first got this diagnosis. But it had, I thought, receded to a manageable level, resolving itself into an acceptance of the maintenance treatment I now receive and the follow-up diagnostics I will live with for the next several years. Wrong. Since the moment three weeks ago when the radiologist told me my six-month mammogram was negative, I have been on the verge of tears. I’m so grateful that I’m still alive. But that means I’m also still mortal, still a cancer patient, and still not out of the woods. So, it’s not over. In fact, there is no “over.” The stalker I thought I had learned to coexist with was still right behind me. And I didn’t realize how much it still frightened me until after that mammogram, when I felt the relief of a condemned woman who’s just gotten a last-minute reprieve.
It’s pretty tough to live this way. In a very real sense, we all live this way because we all know we are mortal, and none of us knows exactly when we will die. But when the word ‘cancer’ applies to you personally, the quiet, profound dialectic of existence becomes a literal and daily life-and-death struggle. And cancer wins, a lot.
In the meantime, I don’t have to see one of “those” doctors until April. And until then, I guess I need to keep working on my struggle to live with the stalker. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself?? I don’t know. Wish me luck.
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