On a normal day, I make that decision in a split second based on whatever I'm feeling at the time -- the need for fresh air or perhaps the desire to stay dry and warm. But yesterday, the question stumped me. It seemed like the most difficult question I had ever had to answer. In fact, I couldn't even muster up a decision. I muttered to my mom that I didn't know, fighting back tears. By my response, she knew that the simple question had overwhelmed me and I'm sure she wished she could take it back. Instead, she confidently chose the footbridge and we kept moving forward.
I lost my composure in the waiting room of the imaging center. Weeks worth of fear, anxiety, anger, and frustration (both for myself and for others who had been there), erupted out of me in the form of tears, boogers, and maybe even drool, all before I could fill out the first question on the clipboard they handed me. My mom took the clipboard and filled it out for me while I sat in the chair next to her holding onto a paper cup of water as if it were an oxygen mask on a plane going down. I signed the paper where my mom told me to and I scribbled the date, which I remembered only because it was easy -- 3/3 -- and because "3" is a special number to a special person I know.
It would be impossible to explain how scared I was while I waited to enter the room with the MRI machine. I took an Ativan as instructed and that helped, but still, my mind conjured up all sorts of terrible images. For instance, the cabinet in the prep room was labeled "Contrast Reaction Medication." As I stared at the IV in my left arm, the passageway through which they would feed the solution to make the images possible, I hoped to a higher being that my body would not react to that solution as it had reacted to the Taxotere. I wondered if the team of angels from the Yawkey building could make it to Dana in time to help me like they did last time. I prayed that, if necessary, they could, or that the Dana building had its own team of angels.
The MRI itself was not as bad as I thought it would be, probably because the waiting before and after were so comparatively awful. Since the techs were imaging my breast (or, better yet, the tissue around it), I lay face down with my boobs positioned in two openings and my head resting through a hole like I've seen on massage tables. My arms were above my head and my right hand held the alarm that the tech told me to use if the contrast caused me any pain. He explained that I should use the alarm if I needed to, but that if I did, they'd have to stop the test and I would have to come back another day since they couldn't insert the contrast twice. That warning was all the motivation I needed to stay completely still for the duration of the test; there was no way I could deal with another day of waiting.
And so for 30 minutes, I listened to countless variations of banging and clanging. In the brief periods of respite, I heard music through the earphones the hospital provided. The tech had even asked which Pandora station I wanted them to play over the earphones. I obviously chose Bruce Springsteen, but "Dancing in the Dark" was the only Bruce song that came on in that whole 30 minutes. I found the chorus incredibly ironic as I stared into the darkness and tried with all my might to stay still.
When I was done, I realized how tired the Ativan had made me. I remember only bits and pieces about the rest of the night. I remember being really hot after the test; trying to put back on my jewelry while my hands shook. I remember waiting for our car in the valet area as I sat upright with my eyes closed. I remember an older woman next to me explaining to her companion that she only tips the parking attendants at places that she plans to return to. "I worry they'd remember me if I didn't tip them and they'd do something to my car next time." In my dazed and exhausted state, that perspective nevertheless caught my attention. What a miserable way to live life, I thought to myself, too tired to say anything to the woman directly about how ridiculous she sounded. Cancer patient or caregiver or whatever, people really shouldn't be stupid.
* * *
This morning, as I waited anxiously at home for my results, the phone rang from an "Unknown" number. My stomach dropped, my adrenaline rushed, and I answered. Slowly and seriously, an older sounding woman asked to speak with Tara Shuman. Gulp.
"This is she."
The woman sounded extremely serious as she said, "Good morning," and gave her name. She sounded like she had bad news to deliver. I almost threw up. "I am calling from the Democratic..." I snapped out of my panic.
"Do not call me! I am waiting for very important test results and I thought you were my doctor and you just scared the Hell of me! Do not call me again!" I screamed, like I have never screamed into the telephone before.
"Should we tryback later today?" She couldn't be serious.
"No! Do not call me back today or ever! I told you that already!" I clicked the phone off with force, and, perhaps, a tinge of guilt. In retrospect, it's kind of funny that some loyal Democrat experienced the wrath of me-in-waiting. I bet she gets some interesting reactions from potential donors but my reaction this morning was probably one she brought up at the lunch or dinner table later today.
A few hours after that, while my mom and I anxiously waited on the sofa watching Frozen (I'm not too proud to admit that no kids were home...), the real "No Caller ID" rang on my phone. I picked up.
It was Danielle, the Physicians Assistant from Dr. Bunnell's office, a kind woman with whom I've grown very comfortable. "The MRI was clean," she explained with a smiling tone. I started to cry, which probably terrified my mother until I gave her the thumbs up to indicate it was a happy cry. She started crying, too. I fell to my living room rug and sat there shaking and trying to listen to everything else Danielle was telling me.
There's no doubt that the clean MRI was a wish come true. But I should know by now that cancer is not usually so black and white. Danielle explained that the MRI looked at the tissue in the breast. "But I don't have any breast tissue, right?" I asked once I had collected myself.
"Right. So it looked at everything around the left implant. And we didn't see any nodules or any evidence of cancer. That's a very good thing." I wished she could have stopped there, but there was a bit more.
Danielle explained that MRIs provide excellent images of tissue but this one did not look at my chest wall or at the bone. I had been under the impression that the test was going to tell all about the pain in my left breast area. But I was wrong. "If the pain persists for another few weeks, we can do a CT scan or an X-ray and see if there's anything in the chest wall or anything wrong with the bone." My chest hurt more as she spoke.
Of course, the news was good news, very good news, and I don't mean to downplay that. I know what tonight could have been and I am blessed by today's result. At the same time, the result is a reminder that expecting black or white answers in the Kingdom of the Ill is often a mistake. In that land, life exists in shades of grey...and I don't mean the 50 Shades kind.
Most of us inside or outside the Kingdom of the Ill crave answers, numbers, and results. We want a Yes or a No, a Positive or a Negative; something definite; a plan. But for good or for bad, we often don't find such certainty. No matter how many tests I undergo to try to relieve myself of the anxiety of "feeling cancer," I'll never know for sure that those deadly cells are not lurking inside me. I'll never know how or when I'll die, and that's not because I'm a cancer patient or a cancer survivor. That's just because I'm human.
But I'm a control freak so I need to focus on a few things that I do know. And I know that I'm surrounded by people who give me hope and faith in the human spirit; family and friends who show me, by example, what it means to be resilient and strong, what it means to care. I have a mother who tells me that "we will get through this together," and who instinctively takes the clipboard from me when I'm too weak to hold it and too teary to read the questions. I have a husband who keeps everything at home perfectly normal even when we both feel like we're living in a bad dream.
Life and death are, undoubtedly, full of unknowns. But there are some knowns, too. For instance, even yesterday, in my post-MRI, exhausted and dazed state, I realized with great clarity this -- that every time I leave Dana-Farber, it's with a person who overtips the parking attendant because even after a long and difficult day, it makes him or her feel good to smile and be kind to another human being. Period. End of story.