I made a two-hour schlep to the cancer centre at the hospital in the city (don’t get me started with the perils of the public transportation system here).
Washington is new to me. I’ve been suburb-bound as I’ve settled into a new life and routine. I’ve been so busy moving forward that, for a while, I literally forgot that I had unfinished business – find a new cancer doctor, a new breast surgeon, a new medical team because I’m supposed to follow up.
I am going with a sigh and out of a sense of obligation. It was one of the moments when I wished that my medical adventure was something more straightforward like a broken bone or maybe tonsillitis or better yet the flu. Cancer doesn’t end with a radiation round; it sits in the background sometimes at a great distance, other times closer.
After taking the train and shuttle to the hospital I was all but exhausted, and waxed nostalgically on Hong Kong’s swift and stellar public transportation system. I miss the Queen Mary.
The white coat was a Chinese woman – nerdy and very technical. She flipped quietly through the mini-library of files I had hauled there. And then she finally broke the silence by saying, “There are a lot of things in Chinese here.” I wracked my brain, panicked. Did she have someone else’s records? “The reports are in English,” I said. Perhaps feeling a bit threatened, she reasserted her authority and said, “Oh maybe it’s the receipts in there.” Indeed I had kept every receipt, including those for lunch trips to Delifrance and Café de Coral.
She was petite and pretty, but had the social skills of a gorilla. I came for a follow-up. Instead she looked at the records and said, “It’s strange that with non-invasive cancer they gave you the details of the HER 2 of the tumour. In this country, we don’t include those numbers for non-invasive cancer, and the number for that looks pretty high, not great.” Was it the word “strange” that threw my thoughts out of whack, or that I felt sucker-punched? I felt a great need now to defend my treatment.
“It’s odd that they don’t include that information in this country,” I said. “So if I got treated here, I wouldn’t have even had those in the report.”
“Yes, but since they did include it in the report, we now know what those numbers are,” she said. “If I were you, I’d get an oncologist and get a second opinion because you didn’t have chemo did you?”
Ok, enough is enough, I thought. Was this woman here to scare the living daylights out me? Because she was doing a good job.
“I’ve already been treated, I’m just here for a follow-up,” I said. For a minute or so I wondered if maybe I got short shift in Hong Kong. Was I supposed to have got chemo?
This doctor seems clueless or maybe it’s her lack of social skills, or is she just being a snob and looking down at healthcare treatment outside of the US? Was she unconsciously questioning my treatment because she was angry about the receipts in the records that she couldn’t read? Maybe she was just a bully.
The banter finally ended when she heard the shakiness in my voice. “Well, let me do the follow-up exam today, and I’m just saying it’s good to get a second opinion. After all, you are young and the statistics show there is a higher percentage of reoccurrence among young people,” she said matter-of-factly. Case closed for now.
After this, I left, with the adrenaline still pumping, and swiftly made an appointment with the recommended oncologist. Then I let the tears flow for the first time in a while. I called my boyfriend and moaned that it just wasn’t fair – a disease that felt like a never-ending marathon run. “As far I am concerned you are cancer-free,” he said. That’s what I had thought. I had celebrated National Breast Cancer Awareness Month with my pink ribbon and breast cancer bracelet.
Ultimately, this visit triggered bad memories of getting horrible news in Hong Kong, triggering a flashback to the afternoon when I received the news over the phone at work. When this kind of bad news is delivered, time and space are frozen. You are catatonic.
Outside autumn shifts into winter. The air goes from crisp to cool. The trees shed their leaves swiftly. Life has to go on. You take the train and the shuttle and return to the campus. You return to a season of changing leaves, of pumpkins, and of the promise of the holiday season to come. You return home after an exhausting day, go online and ease the uncertainty and emotions with some shopping therapy, flip out the credit card and purchase two sparkly shades of nail polish. Yes, when all else fails, at least there is nail polish. I was once again in control.