Wow, this past year has been a whirlwind, and as we wind towards the end of 2013 I have been abruptly reminded of just how quickly we go from the land of the healthy to that of the breast cancer diagnosed. You’d think there would be some bodily warning signs to alert us, but as I can attest, in 1996 and then in 2005 – and now again in 2013, breast cancer does not seem to come with a warning label!
Since October (when I was diagnosed with DCIS) I have been trying to really pay attention this time. Not that I wasn’t paying attention before, but over the nearly 18 years since my original diagnosis, I’m noticing that I only really pay attention to breast cancer when someone says I have it. Because, as is human nature, when it’s in the abstract the need to be hyper-vigilant is simply not that great. Actually, when breast cancer is in the abstract, there are times when not thinking about it at all feels the most healing.
Well, I no longer have that luxury. Not only must I think about it, but I must make every attempt to take some sort of action that will allow me to say goodbye to breast cancer once and for all. And as we all know, that is no small task.
Last week I had my first round of appointments with my former oncologist and the female surgeon I will most likely be using when the time comes to make surgical decisions. Although I was not thrilled with the shift I’ve made from observer to patient, I had to chuckle when I realized just how fluidly we flow from regular human being to someone who can carry on a conversation while another person is feeling their breasts and poking fingers into their armpits. I can honestly say I would never have dreamed I could feel so relatively comfortable in these circumstances. But what else are you going to do? Flinch every time you have to disrobe? That would involve a lot of flinching!
While I was sitting in the oncology waiting room (God, how many times have I had to do this?) a young man came out of the doctor’s office and sat across from me. He couldn’t have been more than 21 or 22 – and it was obvious even to this casual observer that he was desperately ill. Whatever cancer he is suffering from is doing its best to disfigure him. I had thought when I first saw him that he had been badly burned, but overheard a nurse saying the markings I was seeing were tumors. He was waiting while they attempted to get him admitted to the hospital.
I didn’t want to appear to be staring, but he was sitting directly across from me, so it was not only awkward to look directly at him, it was equally awkward to try to avert my eyes. At one point we made eye contact and I smiled at him. It was as much to reassure myself as it was meant to show him that regardless of his physical deformities, I was trying to connect with him on a human level. My smile brought him to tears, but I wasn’t sure if I had comforted him or made him feel even more alone.
In that moment, I was absolutely, completely aware of the fact that I didn’t know what to do next. What I wanted to do was go and put my arms around him and tell him I wished there was something I could do. But I was a complete stranger, and was afraid any action on my part would be way too intrusive. In fact, I was fearful that my smile had not been seen as an act of kindness or compassion, but had only served to make him feel more alone.
I sat there wondering whose baby he was, because as a mother, I couldn’t help thinking how heartbroken someone who knows and loves him must be. I pondered why he was alone, trying not to put more drama into an already highly dramatic situation. I reassured myself that his parents lived far away and were probably on their way and would arrive any moment. I couldn’t bear the thought that he might truly be alone. And yet, I understand that not all stories even have happy beginnings.
While all of this was going through my mind, the nurse ushered me into the room so I could have my exam. In no time flat I was talking about my disease, my life, my this, my that – and the young man in the waiting room was ushered into that part of the brain where memories get stored.
I find it humbling when I give myself permission to think about what my brief encounter with that young man brought to me that day. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. He made me realize just how lucky I am. He made me wish I was wiser, so I’d somehow have known how to truly comfort him. He made me grateful my own children are healthy – but sad that he is not. He made me wish I could know his story – but understand that it is his story, not mine, and in some ways my wish is simply so I can somehow feel better.
In the coming months I will be entering a clinical trial taking place at the University of Pennsylvania. I hope to start in late March. I will be writing more about this in the future, but for the moment I just wanted to take the time to share someone with you who touched my life in a very significant way – and who ironically will never know what an impact he had.
As we enter this joyous season, I hope each of you will take a moment to reflect upon someone who changed your life in this way and send your best wishes their direction.