Peaks and Valleys
After a season’s search I’ve found a new medical team, including an oncologist around my age named Dr Smith. We met once and clicked. She’s three times more personable than the breast surgeon. There is a sparkle in her eye and a tone of hope and cheeriness in her voice. She shakes my hand, looks me in the eye, and even asks me what I do for a living. I’m a person, not just a medical case.
In cancer treatment chemistry is critical – chemistry with doctors, the medical assistants, the secretary at the front desk, and loved ones who are inevitably the cheering squad.
On this follow-up visit the boyfriend came with me, the lone male in the waiting room. I’ve been thinking, the waiting room script never changes much, I’ve got used to it ever since the radiation rounds. It’s mostly husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, and sometimes lovers. The boyfriend who was there for the radiation in Hong Kong was here this time too. The nurses cued him into the examination room. It was as if they were used to boyfriends, lovers, and husbands – the more support the better. Breast cancer is now a family affair.
Dr Smith and her resident, a pretty lady with an Irish accent, had been through my records. The only dark spot on the screen was the tumour. The tumour was quirky and had an unusual make up of being HER2-positive. Only 25 per cent of breast cancer is HER2-positive, which means it won’t respond to Tamoxifen, the major breast cancer drug, and is typically more aggressive, but luckily mine was non-invasive. There aren’t too many studies on the reasons causes of HER2-positive tumours, they said, but there is one being done and they were looking for human guinea pigs. But it looks like I’ve finished my radiation round so I’m probably not eligible. Oh boo, I thought, not really caring and just wanting the visit to be over with.
Dr Smith checked me out and flipped through my charts. The only physical reminders of my adventure were the scar and a bit of pain, perhaps a healthy reminder to slow down whenever I get too stressed out. There had also been the encounter with a woman in the pool locker room who’d spotted the scar and said she had one too. “Oh did you get radiation?” I asked matter-of-factly, just your regular cancer chit-chat. “No, it was a fibroid,” she said and then quickly realising I’d had a rougher deal, looked away silently. The silences are mostly scary to me, a reminder of how serious cancer is, so I filled the silence in with babble. “Lucky I found it early, lucky me – I didn’t even know there was a stage 0,” I said to this complete stranger.
The doctor said she’d see me once a year and I would have the mammogram in May (jitters again) and then see her next December. It was as simple as that.
The exam day was a special day for another reason. I thought that the boyfriend would propose, but oddly to my great disappointment he didn’t. Hours before the doctor’s appointment we had gone to the beach on a cold, brilliant blue sky weekday morning, with him listening to satellite radio and trying to get a perfect picture of us against the backdrop of sun and shore. We’d struggled to find the way to the hospital, igniting another fight in the car. “I don’t want to go,” I said to him, realising my fear of this disease was disguised as anger.
“Any other questions,” Dr Smith asked me? I asked the doctor about diet, as I’d somewhat returned to my fearless diet, even drinking a bit of Sierra Mist soda, and she , “Nothing forbidden - all in moderation.” And then she topped off the visit with words I never thought I’d hear: “As far as I’m concerned you are cancer-free,” she said. I smiled a 1,000 watt smile, deep in disbelief. She then left the room, and then it was just the boyfriend and me.
The boyfriend said he wanted to propose after this visit, but just in case it hadn’t gone well, thought it was better to go from bad news to good rather than good to bad, and this was simply good on good. I was elated. I would live to see my 38th birthday after all.
I sometimes have these dreams about searching for something in the darkness, whether it be a phone number, a person, or an airline ticket, but the dreams - while filled with anxiety - always end with a sense of hope. I am always in a better place, and that’s how I felt here. I was now in a better place, given a second chance, and felt incredibly lucky. I had been pronounced cancer-free, and the boyfriend proposed that night. Life was good in the here and now.