Until Next Year

I’m sitting in a cab not sure if I want to cry or jump for joy. This is how the diagnostic check ups go.

Earlier in the week, I froze in my tracks when I suddenly realized it was test-time. How had a year gone by already (well, technically, six months since I last saw my surgeon-angel but a year since the surgery and requisite diagnostics)? Yes, I’m counting.

Last night, I curled up in a fetal position and started bargaining with the universe. Will this be the time that I don’t get away? Has my luck run out?

If it’s this, then…if it’s that, then…ad infinitum.

For the moment, I count my blessings. I’ve only had a scare; a glimpse into the abyss which consumes so many others.

For a few years, I was squeezed, pinched, prodded, and rubbed every three to six to twelve months in an effort for radiologists to make sense of the “architectural distortion” in the right upper quadrant of my left breast (1:00–4:00 specifically, with a clip placed at 2:00). That “clip” helps them find their way back to where they’ve been before; the already chartered territory that, so far, is benign.

The uncertainty of the diagnostic process is, in itself, a trauma-inducing experience. How do the diagnosed do it? How do they get up each day, push the fear to the side, and soldier on?

Now I’m in the diner, indulging my good fortune with my favorite, massive carb-load.

Head-on collisions with forced speculation on my mortality beg for rewards. In my case, those rewards are: French toast, a good book, and my couch. These are the small things that bring me comfort in life, especially when I’m thinking about death.

Earlier in my career, I was a Clinical Social Worker at this same cancer center where I am now a patient. This institution is both my mother ship and my arch nemesis. As a therapist, I have a bit of a field day applying the principles of attachment theory to this relationship. It is my safety net and, yet, the last place I ever want to be. Every moment I’ve spent in this institution — as an employee or a patient or a family member of a patient — is defined by the sharpest, most sacred awareness of what it means to be alive and, conversely, what it means to consider the alternative.

As I write this, I’m keenly aware of the patients I left behind at the center today, treading the surface of that abyss. They are the ones who didn’t get to breathe a sigh of relief; the ones waiting for their first evaluation, for a second opinion, for treatment, for surgery, or for a conversation about how they are no longer a candidate for treatment.

Had I known what I feel now, back in the days when I was on the care provider side, what would I have done differently? Nothing changes ones perspective on this experience than having even the slightest brush with its actual reality. Having navigated the grueling uncertainty of my own narrative, my lens is forever changed. I was empathic before but I never presumed to know what the folks I cared for actually felt and I NEVER uttered the unthinkable phrase, “I understand.” I knew enough to know that I couldn’t possibly understand.

I’m humbled by the experience of being familiar with both sides. Had I only been a patient — or only been a care provider — I’d be missing a bigger picture.

Today, even through these years of surveiled uncertainty, I respect the unarguable fact that each time I gear up for a visit to my surgeon-angel, put on a robe, wait for a test, and wonder if I’ll be let go or if the doctor will be in to see me — I still know nothing of what it means to know everything about living with cancer.

In a couple of weeks, I will go through this same roller-coaster of ambiguity when I visit my dermatologist whom I see religiously, twice a year, to make sure cancer doesn’t sneak up on me from that angle. And then, if all goes well and, as expected, I’ll have a few months off to let go and live a little. I’ll go for a run, eat some more french toast, and brush aside the looming spectre of uncertainty and those nagging if-it’s-this, thens…