The following is an excerpt from my memoir – Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person: A memoir about cancer as I know it.
Today is April 29, 2010. It is the day I wait for the biopsy result which will determine my future. So much is riding on one little phone call. I keep busy all morning long, confident no news will be delivered early in the day. Doctors make such phone calls at the end of their work day, I tell myself. Bad news will be delivered late in the day.
It will be put off because who wants to deliver bad news?
I busy myself with more cleaning, more laundry and more journaling, but mostly more waiting. As the day goes by, I start feeling more and more on edge. It must be bad news.
For much of the afternoon, I lie on the sofa and attempt to settle in with my latest Grisham novel, but I only pretend to concentrate. The only story line I can concentrate on is my own. My dogs, Elsie and Sophie, wait with me.
I decide to give the clinic until 4 o’clock to call, and then I will call them. Minutes tick away on the large, round clock behind the TV, but no call comes. Four o’clock passes. I wait another ten minutes. Those minutes pass as well; I determine I’ll wait just five more.
Finally, I realize I cannot wait any longer or everyone at the clinic will be leaving for the day and I will be forgotten. I muster up enough courage, make the call and leave a message with the receptionist who promises to deliver it to my doctor right away.
Minutes later, my doctor’s nurse calls and announces, “Nancy, your doctor isn’t in this afternoon, and I don’t have your results. I’m really so sorry.”
“What?” I ask. “Well, I’m sorry, too, but this is totally unacceptable. You told me I’d be called today with the results.”
My heart starts pounding far faster than it is supposed to, and anger starts to rise up from somewhere inside, but I know I cannot let it burst out of me. You cannot allow yourself to become too angry with people who are supposed to be on your side. Plus, it’s not the nurse’s fault.
I take a deep breath and say, “I have an oncology appointment scheduled for tomorrow morning at 9:10. You cannot expect me to walk into that appointment without knowing my results.”
“Oh, I know. You’re absolutely right,” the nurse says. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Immediately, I feel calmer and confident she will come through with some information. Nurses like her exude confidence. Nurses like her understand. I return to the sofa, but am unable to sit. I begin to pace around the room.
Half an hour later, my cell phone rings. I am afraid to answer it, and for an instant I think about pretending I am not available. If I don’t answer it, I cannot receive bad news today. I take a deep breath, grab my pen and paper and decide to push the accept call button. I might as well get it over with. After identifying himself and making sure he is speaking with the right person, this unknown-to-me doctor delivers the words I somehow knew were coming, but am still unprepared to hear.
“Well, there is a cancer there, your biopsy tested positive,” he tells me.
His voice is too calm, too detached and too familiar with giving such news. I wonder why he calls it “a” cancer, not just cancer, like it really matters.
“What else can you tell me?” I ask while thinking my question sounds completely ludicrous. At this moment, what else matters?
“Well, that’s all this report tells us really.”
“I don’t believe that,” I snap. “There has to be more.”
He annoys me. I know he is doing me a favor, delivering this news to a patient who isn’t even his.
“There must be something more you can tell me,” I plead.
For some reason I don’t trust him and feel as if he’s not telling me everything. I have no idea what those things might be.
“The only other thing,” he concedes, “is that it says here you are grade one.”
“Well, that’s at least a bit of good news,” I say.
Unbelievably, he says, “Not really, it’s the least important piece of information when we stage cancer. Tumor size and number of lymph nodes involved are far more important pieces to the puzzle than grade.”
My displeasure with this guy grows, even though I know he’s right. Perhaps I am being unfair and judgmental, but I want to scream at him, what is your problem?
Instead I keep pressing him for something further, I’m not sure what.
After I have squeezed all the information I will get out of him, I apologize for putting him on the spot and for being so short. However, I don’t really believe he deserves an apology, and I wonder if he knows I am insincere. I begin to tremble slightly. Our conversation is concluding and my voice, which thus far I have been able to keep steady, begins to waver.
“Are you okay?” he asks, hearing me start to cry.
No you asshole; you just told me I have cancer!
Those are the words I want to lash out with, but of course that is impossible. He seems to suddenly realize his last remark sounded insensitive because his voice immediately softens.
“I know you’ve just been told you have cancer, and it’s understandable for you to be upset,” he says.
His voice is suddenly filled with concern. His compassion comes too late. I’m done with him.
We say our goodbyes and hang up. He probably goes home to have a nice quiet dinner with his wife and kids thinking no more about cancer today. I, on the other hand, start sobbing as I absorb the reality of my new life, for it feels my old life is over. Now I have cancer and am forever changed. I feel alone, angry, terrified, cheated, guilty, jinxed, unfairly treated and just plain miserable. I hear myself weeping and feel my body rocking back and forth, but it seems as if I am observing someone else’s life, a person I do not recognize.
I am alone, but not totally. Elsie and Sophie sit next to me and wonder what is wrong with me. Sophie puts her front paws up on the sofa and tries to lick my face. Elsie sits as close to me as she can get, wiggling her body as she tries to nudge Sophie out of the way. They both somehow sense the seriousness of the situation. My dogs are the only ones with me to witness first hand my ugliest moments.
They are familiar with this role. They are seasoned witnesses, my secret keepers, consoling me only months earlier when I grieved for mother who died from, of all things, breast cancer.
Will I die from it too?
Perhaps being alone with my dogs is for the best. They will never reveal the secrets they witness on a late afternoon in spring.
Stay tuned for part 2.
How did you get news of your diagnosis?
Have you ever wanted to lash out at a doctor for any reason?
Who helps you when you receive bad news?
Read more in my memoir, Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person: A memoir about cancer as I know it