Even after six and a half years, I look around and realize I am the youngest person in the waiting room. Women who are much sicker than me, which is most of them, since as far as we know, I might not be sick right now at all, still look at me with a mixture of pity and alarm. It is worse now that I don’t bother to bring my husband with me to my appointments, unless a mammogram is involved, in which case, he isn’t allowed to wait with my anyway. I am 41 years old and nowhere near young, but when sitting on a couch alone, hair so short it isn’t possible to tell if it’s on purpose or not, wearing a Stevie Ray Vaughan tshirt I’ve had for over a quarter century so it can’t qualify as ironic, waiting for the oncologist—and I am confronted, again, by people who regard me as someone who shouldn’t be there at all.
And so I am young, but only because I am in an environment where it is normal to be old, or at least aging. I am healthy, which is regarded with some measure of suspicion, as most in the room are not. I am impatient, while many around me would probably like to wait a while longer to hear the news they are there to hear. I know what is going to happen, and I am not nervous, though I probably should be.
I know that the oncologist will tell me that I look great, that I am doing everything right, and that I should enjoy the holidays with my family. I know that I should feel relief when his three minute exam shows that nothing is amiss. But I don’t feel relief. I don’t feel fear or dread either, because I don’t feel anything. I am not here to learn whether or not I have cancer. I know now that I am likely to discover any solid tumors myself, as I have done twice. I also know that if my cancer has metastasized and turned terminal, I would most likely be aware of it already before I showed up at the doctor’s office.
I know that I am doing this because even cancer is like life, with its obligations and rituals.
Before my oncologist arrives and we dance the dance we agreed on years ago, wherein he forgave me for knowing too much and I forgave him for not understanding that, a young resident arrives. I had been expecting the physician’s assistant I have known for the last six years, and I was oddly looking forward to the small talk.
This woman who arrived instead is young, much younger than me, perhaps in her late twenties. She seemed impossibly new at this. As she began interspersing her medical questions with questions about my life, I realized that someone must have taught her to do this. It seemed obvious that she didn’t really want to know about my recent move, my kids’ adjusting to their new school, the fact that my son hasn’t had night terrors in years, my husband’s new job or our plans for the holidays. She asked questions and I answered them but she didn’t want to know. It was easier for her to ask me about my medications (none), any illnesses or issues (none), irregular bleeding since that D&C three years ago (none), any worries at all? (none? Except that I have a fairly large probability of dying much younger than I should, which is something I’ve had to live with for years, so it doesn’t qualify as a worry anymore…but no one says that, because no one wants to hear that). I briefly wonder what it is about her demeanor that seems so…off…though she is perfectly polite and professional.
It hits me the way only crucial things do, all at once and in such blinding fashion that you are embarrassed you hadn’t thought of it before.
She sees me, and she sees the differences between herself and me, which makes the similarities more striking. She doesn’t have children, a husband, a house, she is working on starting her career, not trying to take a break from it (she tells me these things either directly or indirectly). She also, of course, doesn’t have cancer, once, twice, or otherwise. I have done some of the things she would like to do and a bunch of the things she would not. If I am me, a person who fifteen years ago was like her in many ways, she could be a person like me in the future. I am older than her but not old enough. And as has happened so many times before, I find myself sitting in an exam room, trying to make it easier for the other person on the other side of the table. I feel relieved for her when she leaves.
When my doctor comes in and does all of the things I know he will do in exactly the fashion I expect, I am out of words. I have nothing to ask him, nothing to tell him, except that now that I have moved, we are neighbors, which I know he doesn’t want to hear. Instead of a question or series of questions, I just say the thing that needs to be said:
“I know there’s nothing for me to do, one way or the other. Just keep plugging along.”
“That’s right. There’s nothing for you to do that you aren’t doing.”
There’s nothing we can do, he is saying. You will either be in the 70% of women who ultimately survive this or you will not. I cannot tell you which woman you are. And then, the words underneath the words he does not say:
And what if I could? What would you do differently?
I think about that as I leave, after I make the appointment for my mammogram, wherein I explain in a normal tone of voice, when asked, “so it’s just a right side image you need? Do you have a left breast?” that no, I do not, there is nothing there to image. I think, if I knew how this would turn out, when I was a child, as a young woman, before I had children, or even now, what would I do differently?
And I think I would probably have quit my steady job in an uncertain time, jumped into buying a house before we could get rid of the other one, moved my family, held onto a concert tshirt bearing the image of the man responsible for my first-born’s name, taken the el to the hospital, fidgeted in the waiting room out of pent-up energy rather than nervousness, accepted my own anger as either a character flaw or understandable response to all the rest of it, and, when called upon to say something meaningful, I would have looked at the younger version of myself who didn’t know what was coming, as she wrote notes about a slightly-older woman in a chart naming which cells had gone wrong, and said:
“After doing this for a while, it gets easier.”
On a day when many people think about birth and death and what comes in between, for one reason or another, I leave you with this. I would not have done anything differently, even had I known—especially had I known.
Merry Christmas, everyone.