Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Colds and Connections

Yesterday when I was done reading this recent New York Times article by Suleika Jaouad titled "Lost in Transition After Cancer," an odd feeling remained in the pit of my stomach. I couldn't identify the feeling and I didn't even take any conscious time to think about it. I agreed with basically everything Ms. Jaouad had written but it wasn't a feeling of connection or even one of sympathy. It was an uncomfortable feeling that made me feel icky inside and it wasn't until today that I recognized what the feeling was. It was jealousy. 

* * *

I returned to the article this morning before I left for a doctor's appointment and again while I sat in my primary care physician's office waiting for my name to be called. I had booked an appointment this morning after two days and nights of a cough that made my chest hurt and my worry gauge almost explode. More-than-halfway convinced that my lungs were riddled with tumors, I decided I needed someone to take a listen and a look. Knowing how terrified I was, my mom came with me.

It's embarrassing for me to even admit that. That at 35 years old, I need my mom to come with me to get a cough checked out. But I was so scared that it would happen again -- that I would be alone at Dedham Medical Associates receiving the news that I had cancer. I needed her there with me and she knew that without me even having to so much as hint at it.

When you first pull into the lot of the DMA medical building, you have the option to turn right into a separate parking lot. It felt like my mom was slowing down to turn into that lot and I almost panicked. She had no idea that on August 8, 2012, while a radiologist told me I had cancer, my car sat parked in that lot on the right. My mom didn't know that I sat in my car in that lot when I called my colleague Mark and told him that I likely had breast cancer and wouldn't be coming to work that day. Thank goodness I didn't need to bring all of that up because my mom never ended up turning into the lot on the right and instead parked in the front of the building. I felt like I had dodged a bullet. (Sensitive much?)

As I walked up to the entrance, I decided something. I didn't want to visit this building ever again. It was full of too many bad memories and emotions. I announced to my mom while we sat in the waiting room that I hated that place. That I wanted to switch to a doctor in a different building so I would never need to come there again. She said she understood.

As I mentioned before, while I waited to be called back to see the doctor, I returned to the article by Suleika Jaouad. I reread the following passage more than once:

It took me a long time to be able to say I was a cancer patient. Then, for a long time, I was only that: A cancer patient. Now that I’m done with my treatment, I’m struggling to figure out who I am. On paper, I am better: I no longer have cancer, and with every passing day I’m getting stronger. The constant flood of doctor’s appointments, blood tests and phone calls from concerned family and friends have trickled to a slow drip. But off paper, I feel far from being a healthy 26-year-old woman.

My disease has left countless invisible imprints in its wake: infertility, premature menopause, a thyroid condition, chronic fatigue and a weakened immune system that sends me to the emergency room on a regular basis. And that’s just the short list. Then there are the demons of depression and the fears of relapse that sneak into my head just when I think I’ve gotten a grip. The rattle of a cough in my chest. A strange bruise on the back of my leg. A missed call from my oncologist. Each of these triggers rips me out of my fragile, new reality leaving me to wonder: What happens if the cancer comes back? Will I ever feel normal again? And most daunting of all, how do I move forward with my life?

"The rattle of a cough in my chest." I think that's the line that made the jealousy give way to the connection. 

I started to unpack this in my mind between being weighed and allowing the nurse to take my vitals. I realized why I felt jealousy towards Ms. Jaouad when I first read her article. It was because I felt like she was infringing on who I am. I know, it's ridiculous and self-centered but it's true -- I felt something like, I'm the young woman who writes about cancer! You can't be that too, especially because you do it way better than I do! Oh, and you're gorgeous. Urgh. 

When I let go of that yucky feeling and reminded myself that it's a damn good thing that I don't have a monopoly on writing about the cancer experience, I was able to feel comfort by Ms. Jaouad's words. It was a deep, sincere comfort for which I am now so very grateful. 

*   *   *

As the nurse (who I will call "Annie") prepped me for the doctor, she asked me what I had come in for. 

"A cough," I explained trying not to cough. Then the room started to spin and before I knew it I was crying and telling her how scared I was. That I was just two and a half years out of a cancer diagnosis and I was terrified that the cough was something so much worse. 

All of a sudden, Annie's demeanor changed. She told me that she understood. That she had breast cancer more than 20 years ago. She hugged me and agreed that it was so scary but that I would be okay. I cried more, not out of fear so much anymore, but because all of the sudden, I felt hope -- hope that not only could I survive this appointment but that I could live to say "I had cancer 20 years ago."

Annie and I talked a while longer. She told me that her twin sister and also her other sister had breast cancer over 20 years ago. That they were all doing fine. She asked me what treatment I received and when I got to the Herceptin part, she lit up. "Herceptin is an amazing drug," she exclaimed. Annie's sister was HER2+ like me and Annie clearly knew the significance of Herceptin. It's strange how immediately connected I feel to people who understand that. 

Once I was able to collect myself, I tried to tell Annie what her kindness had meant to me. But I don't think it's really possible to articulate that. Hope is too powerful of a gift. 

*   *   *

My PCP came in a few minutes after Annie left. Dr. K was brilliant. Empathetic, compassionate, honest, and kind (in a way like she really means it, too). She looked at my eyes, nose, and throat. She listened to my heart and my lungs and she felt my glands. Dr. K asked me lots of questions and I felt comforted by those. Ultimately, she told me that Sudafed would likely do the trick. Basically, I have a cold. 

I know I've written some version of this post about 12 times before. I know that none of those pieces have been as eloquent as Ms. Jaouad's article and I know now that that's okay. Unfortunately, lots of people get cancer and fortunately, many of those people write about it. I think some of my jealousy towards Ms. Jaouad stems from the fact that I, too, am still trying to figure out who I am after cancer. 

*   *   *

As I left the doctor's office today, I decided that I'm not going to switch to a new doctor. I want to say Hi to Annie next time I'm there and I'd be foolish to leave a doctor who cares the way that Dr. K does. 

In the end, I can get over what the bricks and the tar of that medical building remind me of. I can even dispose of jealousy once I recognize it. And this is all a very good thing. Because human connection is one of the most hopeful things out there. 

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