If I’d gotten to write the script for July 24th, 2008, one year ago, I certainly would have written it differently. In the first place, if I still had to find out I had cancer, it would have been divulged to me in a face-to-face dialogue, not in a phone conversation that happened accidentally. Perhaps I would have given myself a loving, stalwart partner to give me a bolstering hug as I heard the news and to comfort me afterward as I crumbled in shock. However, in real life, I didn’t have one of those. I had a phone to hold onto and a kitchen chair to hold me up.
It was a Thursday, about 4:30 in the afternoon. I had just gotten home from work, and I found a perplexing message on my voice mail. Three days earlier, I’d had a stereotactic mammogram, an odd procedure that involves lying face down and allowing one breast to dangle through an opening in a hydrolic lift table, while a radiologist looks at the breast on a mammography screen and extracts a biopsy sample. My tissue had subsequently been sent to a pathologist for analysis, and no later than early next week I would be seeing Dr. Doreen again, a surgeon I’d just met the week before, to get the results.
Cancer survivors can write whole books about what it’s like to wait for test results, although the experience can be summed up in one word — excruciating. But I was not finding it painful to wait. I was in a state of anticipation, but I was not expecting bad news. I did not have a family history of breast cancer. I didn’t even have a lump. I had a scattering of boob dandruff that showed up on my annual screening mammogram. So, I was not worried. Chances were good that the granules of boob dandruff were just normal breast calcifications and I could get on with my life.
So, I didn’t quite know what to make of the message on my voice mail. It was from the diagnostic imaging department of the hospital where I’d had the biopsy, asking me to call back to confirm an appointment for an MRI on the following Monday. Huh? Why did I need an MRI? Were the biopsy results back? Were they ambiguous? Or did they just want one to confirm what was going on? Puzzled, I called the MRI scheduler and asked her how it came about that she was scheduling me for an MRI in the first place. She told me that Dr. Doreen had ordered it. “When?” I asked her. “This afternoon,” she said. “Does this mean she has the biopsy results?” “Yes,” she said. “It’s standard procedure.” Standard procedure? Not in my life, it wasn’t.
Now it was about 5 o’clock. Dr. Doreen had kindly given me her cell phone number, so I called it. She answered and I explained the call from the MRI scheduler. She explained that she was out of town, at an oncology seminar, and to hang on while she got herself out of the lecture hall. When she came back on the line, she apologized for my hearing from the MRI department before hearing from her. “Well,” I said, “I have an appointment for an MRI on Monday. Do I need it?”
“Kathi, this is not how I wanted this to go. I’m sorry. Your biopsy was positive. You have ductal carcinoma, but it’s in situ which means there’s no indication of any invasive components or lymph node involvement. But I’d like to get a breast MRI to get a more complete picture of it.” She went on to explain a few more details and said she would call me back later so we could talk longer. Meanwhile, she could have gone on to recite the Gettysburg Address or to tell me I’d won the Lottery, but I wouldn’t have known either way. I was stuck back at ‘Your biopsy was positive.’ Oh my god. My biopsy was positive? How can that be?
When I hung up, I was numb. I think I remembered to let the dog out and to feed him and the cats. But I’m not sure. The only thing I’m sure of is that I wanted to crawl into bed, pull the covers over my head and not come out. A perfectly reasonable impulse, in my opinion. I felt instantly overwhelmed, helpless, depressed, alone, mortal, frightened and devastated, all at once. I was completely and utterly gobsmacked. Cancer? Me?? That word just did not belong in my personal universe. I never imagined it would ever apply to me, would ever occupy a sentence with my name in it or with a first-person singular pronoun in front of it, followed by the verb “have.”
I made a very deliberate decision at that moment. However much I wanted to hide, to keep it to myself, to discuss it only when it was unavoidable, I decided then and there to do the exact opposite. I decided that I was going to tell as many people as I could. I was not going to isolate myself or avoid asking for help or try to handle this all on my own. I did not have to prove that I was strong, independent and competent. I had cancer, for god’s sake, and I was freaked out, and I was going to tell whoever I thought would want to know and maybe some folks who might not want to know, and I figured if I told enough people, I was bound to end up with a reasonable number of people who would be able to help me. So, that’s precisely what I did, beginning with my closest friends and my telephone.
And what I found out is that I knew a lot of people who wanted to know. It was something like being able to go to my own funeral, except that I didn’t have to die. I found out that night and the next day and the next week and over the next several weeks and months of this whole ugly adventure just how many people I knew who cared that I was alive and on this earth and who wanted very much for me to continue. It was the most remarkable and moving and poignant thing I’ve ever experienced. I felt like George Bailey being saved from death and despair by Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, who shows him how much his existence has meant to everyone in Bedford Falls. Such a treasure does not come along every day, the rare gift of discovering that you have made a difference in this world, that you matter.
And that wasn’t all, because I would also discover dozens of total strangers who would kindly and freely share with me their affection, humor, experience and support. But I’ll save them for my next post. Don’t get me wrong. I’d rather not have had cancer. I would never recommend it as an experience. But somehow I managed to experience something besides cancer this past year. I managed to experience life in all its incredible and unexpected variety and joy and magnificence and silliness and generosity. It was life as I’d always known and loved it, cubed. And I discovered that I was right all along to laugh as much as I could every day, to have as much fun as I could have, to worry about the housework some other time, to wrestle with my dog and snuggle my cats and hang out with my friends and eat chocolate and have pie a la mode and buy red high heels just because I felt like it. Because life is short and infinitely precious.
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