(by Frances Barrie) Yesterday I met my new oncologist, Wendy Chen, who replaced Dr. Anderson after she moved to Arizona. She was nice enough– a little high-strung with a really bizarre, cartoon like laugh–but nice. I suppose you have to be a little high-strung to work in the cancer industry, it seems these doctors have to fit in more and more patients on a daily basis and to do that you have to relay a lot of information in a short period of time– Information that is changing as fast as their patient list is growing. I especially liked Dr. Chen because she told me that she wouldn’t force me to take Femera–a drug she knew from Anderson’s notes I guess–that I am opposed to taking. She said I could try it and then get off it if I wanted, “No harm done,” HAHAHAHA(weird laugh). Anyway, I will see her again in 6 months.
While waiting at the check out desk to schedule my follow-up, I heard another doctor giving a list of instructions to a woman behind me in line:
“Friday you’ll come to the 10th floor for your first infusion, here’s where you go for your MUGA heart scan, fill these prescriptions by tomorrow and take them Friday morning before you come…..’
An all-too familiar shiver went up my spine as he rambled on.
Suddenly, here was that fine line I walk, again, the one between leaving people to their own grief or getting involved. I struggle with this. Sometimes I keep to myself, wishing I had said something. In this case, the feeling of panic and fear emanating from behind my back was so palpable that I reacted before I had time to convince myself to mind my own business. And this time, I was glad I did.
I turned around to see a woman, older than me by maybe seven years with her husband. Both looked like they had just witnessed a train wreck or walked through a haunted house.
“You’ll get through this.” I said, “Honestly, you are going to be ok.”
Her gratitude almost made her knees give out and I showed her to the chair.
“I’m so overwhelmed.” she said, shuffling through a pile of papers in her hand; white, purple, yellow copies of instructions, and prescriptions, consent forms and test results. Her husband sat on the other side of her, rustling through his own papers, alternately looking over at me like I actually had the answer to the question I know he wanted to ask, “Am I going to lose her?”
I told her things I had learned:
“The chemo will be hard at first but they give you lots of drugs to counteract the side-effects.”
“Wint-O-Green mints really helped me.”
“Three days after infusion you will start to feel a little better.”
“Take the Ativan.”
She thankfully accepted my comfort as I rubbed her arm and put my hand on her shoulder–gestures that usually are reserved for only your closest friends and relatives.
“Will I be able to walk out of here after the chemo treatment?” she asked me.
“Oh definitely,” I said, “You will be tired and your head will be fuzzy from the chemo and the drugs but you will be fine. Really.”
I learned that she had been treated for uterine cancer through surgery and was doing well enough to not need chemo or radiation. But after 5 weeks she was in great pain– the cancer returned as a large tumor in her upper abdomen.
“Five weeks!, ” She said, “I was walking on air, had a new lease on life. I couldn’t stop smiling, and then bang, just like that…”
She enjoyed those 5 weeks immensely, not knowing what lay around the corner or the next battle she was going to have to face. This confirmed what I believe stronger every day–There is no sense in ruining today by worrying what might happen tomorrow. My cancer could come back at anytime–it’s why they want me to take these medications–to avoid the recurrence that could be deadly. But it does me no good to worry about that until it happens. Deal with each hurdle as they come, don’t sit around overwhelming yourself with what might happen. I would much rather squeeze as much life out of today like my friend in the doctor’s office did. If she’d known the cancer would return, how unhappy and anxiety-ridden those 5 weeks would have been. Instead she has wonderful happy memories of a time when she totally enjoyed her new life–and those memories might just give her enough strength to get her through her next hurdle.
“I’m so sorry, “I said, “But it’s great that you had those weeks, right? Imagine if you didn’t ever get to be that happy?…and now you will just get through this–you just will.”
I don’t know this woman nor do I know for sure that she will get through this. But so often all it takes is some ones’ faith in your strength and ability to muddle through–sometimes it’s enough to hold onto when you think you can’t do it any more.
“I am not giving up,” she said, looking straight into my eyes.
When I left the office she squeezed my hand and thanked me.
“I am so glad you said something, ” she kept saying, “So glad you said something…”.