Early on in the diagnosis days of my cancer journey, Joe and I met Doctor #2. The surgeon of the team. Eventually there would be three: a chemo oncologist, a radiation oncologist, and a surgical oncologist.
His office was messy, with papers and books all over, like you'd want to see if you were assembling your Cancer Dream Team. But he seemed to have a life, too. I noted the painting of a wintery Central Park, the iPod docking station, and the terrific view of the hospital out the window.
Looking at the second floor windows over there, I knew from experience that babies were being born in the dimly lit, warm, cocoon-like rooms as we spoke.
I longed to be there instead of in this white-walled, fluorescent-lit, medical journal-strewn office.
Let's see, he said. Joe, the doctor, and I crowded around his computer monitor to see the black and white moonscapes on the screen. The landscape of my defective breast. The tumor was there, a giant black crater. Like a black hole. Looking at it was to sink into it, all the oxygen slowly leaving the room.
The doctor, having done it a million times before, described lumpectomies versus mastectomies – radical versus modified. Reconstructive surgery versus not. He handed us brochures that were as hard to connect to reality as it is to read the safety guidelines on a plane and actually believe you may need to utilize that information.
Then he started to ask me rapid-fire questions and punch numbers into the keypad.
Family history of breast cancer? Yes.
How old are you? 35
HER2 positive? Yes.
Tumor size? 7 cm
Then he hit 'print' and there in black and white, my stone-cold prognosis. Two sheets. One had a graph for likelihood of recurrence. One had a graph for the likelihood I'd be here to celebrate the fabled 5-year mark.
Graphs that illustrated a glass half-full / half-empty approach to how much time I now could expect to have with my child, my husband, my friends, my family. Future children. Or lack there of, I suddenly realized.
For a long time, those two pages haunted me.
I cried and raged about them. They snuck into my thoughts when I thought everything was ok. I lay awake at night long after Joe and Nia were snoring, thinking about them, watching the wind sway the giant Oak tree in our backyard. Finally one night when I was crying too hard to sleep, Joe told me to go get them. Get the f-ing papers! So I went and pulled them out of my file box. (You know, where you keep the really important documents.) I brought them to Joe and he looked at them briefly and then told me to throw them away.
I was afraid to. But I also had been waiting for this – permission to destroy this death sentence.
I did. And then I put the stats out of my mind. I wasn't even statistically supposed to get breast cancer in the first place (not only had I breast-fed my child, but I'd nursed her the very morning I was diagnosed!) – why should I expect to fit into a statistical graph now?
And so a year went by. I had treatment, surgery, radiation.
Another year went by and my hair grew back, I resumed working, parenting, the regular ups and downs of normal life. My follow-up appointments became further and further apart. The office staff changed at my oncologist's office and it no longer felt like a Cheers! episode when I walked in (for better or for worse). I learned to live with aches and pains and not to fear cancer at every sneeze.
And then, just when I'm starting my third lap around the sun after diagnosis, my dad up and get's cancer.
And a stranger told him his prognosis. And suddenly the graphs, the timelines, the stats all seemed VERY important. And I'd what?! Thrown mine away?! I suddenly felt like I was driving the wrong way down a one-way street at night with no headlights (but trying not to let anyone else in the car know what was happening -- yeah, I'm fine. Everything is fine. Why do you ask?).
Then, after a few weeks I couldn't bare it anymore. I went online to LifeMath.net. (Seriously. “Cancer web-calculations for medical professionals.”)
I typed in my data this time, and out came a prognosis. Stone-cold, black and white. Life math.
I shut my laptop and walked shakily out of the office.
Three months ago, Joe and I signed up for a parenting class. When my dad's diagnosis came, I considered canceling it, but then thought we might need some extra tools in our back pockets for helping Nia through this time in our lives. And so we went through with the class: 2 hours, every Thursday, for 6 weeks.
As expected, I took away a lot of helpful hints for handling the stresses of parenting.
But one thing I hadn't expected was to learn a few tricks to help me function – not only in parenting, but in general. One such trick was aptly called Listening Partnerships – basically talking without interruption to someone willing to listen and provide warm (largely silent) support. The goal is to release tension, blow off steam, without someone trying to offer suggestions or make it better, so that we can go back to the business at hand without any emotional hang-up baggage/triggers getting in the way (this works for kids too).
So that morning that I calculated my own life expectancy, I phoned a friend. I just did something really, really stupid, I confessed. Got a second?
I told her what I did. About throwing away the original numbers, and then about the website. And then, tentatively, I asked if I could tell her my prognosis. I had to. I could not be the only one knowing this number, as selfish as that is.
I heard her catch her breath. The tears silently streamed down my face while I waited.
And then she said, “Yeah. Ok. But since when do you play by other people's rules?! I mean, geez, did you even tell it your dad has cancer and your mom is already dead? Hell, statistically speaking, you probably should never drive a car again!”
Through the snot and the tears, a huge laugh burst out of my lungs.
And suddenly the black and white shifted back to color with shades and depths and nuance. And I put one foot in front of the other and resumed the business of living.