Thursday, September 29, 2022

A Spot and the Soul (Part 1)

The technician jokingly called me "fresh" as she rolled me into the MRI tube this past Tuesday afternoon. She was referring to the fact that I was about eight years late in scheduling the MRI that she was about to perform. Truthfully, I had no idea that I was supposed to be going to see my plastic surgeon for MRIs every 2-3 years to check on the implants in my chest. 

I hadn't taken an Ativan for this test which was a first for me. I hate confined spaces and sitting still so lying still in a coffin-like tube isn't my idea of a good time. Ativan helps. I only had one pill left, so I figured I'd save it for the next brain MRI in December. 

I had some definite moments of panic while the MRI clanged away but I got through it. When I emerged from the machine, cheeks burning red and body freezing, I promised myself to take the Ativan next time. I wondered if the technicians saw anything on the scan but I've learned not to ask them because they don't tell you. Still, I felt a familiar nervous nausea as I changed out of the johnny and back into my clothes. 

On the way out, the technician who called me fresh joked again, "See you in ten years!" 

"God-willing," I replied, smiling, still sick to my stomach. God-willing. 

Yesterday, I took Annabel to Kohl's to look for a dress for a fancy event we are attending as a family on Saturday night. She had a few in hand and was headed to the fitting room when I felt my phone vibrate. It was the plastic surgeon. The implants look fine. But. 

My legs immediately turn to jelly when I get results like this. I felt the heat fill me, head to toe. 

I don't remember the exact words she used. Hyper-activity. 4mm. Bone. Sternum to be exact. Another test will look more closely. 

I thought I was going to throw up. "I'm scared," was all I could eek out. (Thank goodness Annabel is so independent and doesn't need my advice on clothes to decide if she likes or doesn't like them.)

Dr. Chun assured me that these types of things pop up "often." I made her repeat it. Often.  

"And are they ever cancer?" 

"Very rarely." 

"I'm scared." 

"I know you are and I'm so sorry to have to do this to you when it could be nothing. But when we see these spots, we have to investigate. I'm so sorry." 

I was pacing now, in and out of the clothes racks. A middle-aged woman in a grey sweatshirt with baby blue writing walked by. I almost dove into her arms, ready to tell her everything and ask her to just hold me up. I would have done that were I alone. That poor woman has no idea what she escaped thanks to Kohl's having a limited selection of dresses that Annabel liked. Had she had more to try on, that woman have gotten a dose of a crazy stranger she'd never have forgotten. Knowing Annabel would emerge shortly, I let her pass by. 

Brian was teaching a class until 6 p.m. and it was only four. I didn't want to bother him so I called my mom. Of course, she was wonderful. My rock. She asked if she should meet me at Kohl's. I told her I thought I could get home myself. But honestly, I didn't believe it yet. 

Annabel emerged. Nothing fit, thank God because I never could have stood in line to pay. It took everything in my power to not share what I was feeling. I had to be a calm, rational version of myself and let me tell you, it would be easier to convince myself that I'm a seahorse than convince myself I'm calm when I'm not. But somehow, I did it. 

Annabel immediately knew something was wrong and I told her that the stupid MRI just showed a little spot that they have to look at. She was scared. I told her what the doctor told me. That these types of things "often" pop up on tests. That they are usually nothing. I told her that I was just so frustrated (hence, the approaching tears) because I just really didn't want to go for another test. She seemed to understand that. Still, she was scared and upset. God, I wanted to help her. But I was too scared and upset to do it.  

I don't even know how I got us home but somehow, I did. Once there, I ran upstairs to the cabinet and took the last Ativan that I hadn't taken the day prior. I tucked it under my tongue so it'd dissolve faster. 

My mom was on my porch in minutes. We knew we had to make some calls and by some miracle, I made them. To my oncology team to ask them to weigh in on next steps. To my PCP to order more Ativan. I paced. With Annabel in the other room, I cried. 

I had to get her out of the house so I could freak out and then collect my thoughts (it's a two-step process). I tried to walk her over to the field hockey game but as we got close, she started to cry and said she just wanted to go home. No! I thought to myself. I'm supposed to get you to this game with your friends so I can go home and fall apart. I need to go fall apart! But she didn't want to go to the game. 

And then something happened. In my most self-centered state, something came over me that told me, Do this for her. Do what you think you can't do FOR HER. And because of that voice--the voice of love, I guess--I did it. I shed a tiny part of the burden I was so selfishly bearing, just enough to hug her and make a joke. We laughed about how annoying medical tests were, about how pouty I was being. We walked home, lighter, me, Annabel, and my Mom. 

My sister-in-law is an incredible nurse practitioner and later last night, she gave me the hope I needed to hang on to some version of sanity. She assured me that these types of things pop up all the time. That it could be nothing. That it could be nothing. That it could be nothing. 

By the time Teddy and Brian got home, I had gotten myself to a much more stable place. The night went on as usual. Homework. Dinner (for those who could eat). Television. Bedtime. I even slept. Yes, I took another 0.5mg of Ativan, but still. 

This morning I took a walk with a dear friend, someone who knows more than I do how fucking scary this all is. (Remember: swearing allowed when scared shitless.) She knows the depths of this type of fear, and while it comforts me to have that company, it breaks my heart, too. No one should know this type of fear. (Okay, maybe I'd wish it on just a few people but those ones are basically the devil's spawn, and even then, I'd probably cave and want them spared, too.)

I know that this could be nothing. I have had these scares before. So why am I writing? Because writing is my lifeboat. 

Speaking of lifeboats, I just finished reading, Stranger in a Lifeboat by Mitch Albom (yes, the "Tuesdays-with-Morrie-guy"). That book. Wow. It shook me to my core. I won't ruin it for you but I'll say this.

I know it's easier for people who love us to watch us face an obstacle and say, "You'll be okay! It could be nothing!" That's the way they hope and I would never take that away from them. But for me, it's not enough. I know this could be nothing. But I also know it could be something. Cancer, again. I have to be able to say that to myself. To type it. To read it on the screen. Of course, the rational ones around me will say, "What are the chances!? Don't worry until there is something to worry about!" And I love that you think that way. I wish I could think that way. 

But something happened to me in these last ten years, and it wasn't just the shock of my own cancer. Today or any day, my hope is no longer founded on the thought of maybe it won't come back. There's always a part of me that assumes it will. I was just too young, too (otherwise) healthy, too shocked to think of it any other way. Plus, the nightmares. Oh the nightmares. They are there at least every week. They show me--with cinematic detail--what could happen. And, of course, there are the scares--like this one. The little glimpses into the "what if?" The pure Hell of those glimpses. 

And so I need to ground my hope in something deeper. I need to believe that if this spot on my sternum does turn out to be metastasized cancer, that they could do something about it. That there would be a surgery or a procedure or a medicine. That there would be a plan of action, and then, action

But I'm not done yet. Do you want to know how really, truly crazy I am? (It's a lot, brace yourself.) I actually need even more hope than that (a hope-hog, right?!). I need to have the hope that if they didn't have a plan, or if the plans eventually ran out, that the universe would somehow still be loving and fair. What does that look like? (Oh the tears.) Breathe. It looks like last night. My mom taking Annabel to  McDonalds. Teddy coming home from a golf match and doing his homework. Brian teaching and coaching. It means me, absent, still somehow able to show them how much I love them. 

There is a page in Mitch Albom's Stranger in the Lifeboat that reads (without giving away any  surprises, hence the multiple ellipses): 

"When someone passes, Benjamin, people always ask, 'Why did God take them?' A better question would be 'Why did God give them to us?' What did we do to deserve their love, their joy, the sweet moments we shared? Did you have such moments with Annabelle?" [The character's name is Annabelle, like my Annabel.)] … 

"Those moments are a gift. But their end is not punishment. … Beginnings and endings are earthly ideas. … Feeling loss is part of why you are on Earth. Through it, you appreciate the gift of human existence, and you learn to cherish the world[.] … But the human form is not permanent. It was never meant to be. That gift belongs to the soul." (page 241-242)

My deepest fear and my deepest hope lies in the "not permanence" of us all. So yes, the spot on my sternum could be nothing. But if it's something, I will still find hope in modern medicine, in the resilience of the human spirit, and ultimately, in my faith that soul continues on in a way no earthly being could ever understand.

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