You Feeling Lucky Today?

I didn’t expect the heaviness — I mean, after all, it had been 18 years and wasn’t I beyond all of that? But it was there as I parked my car in the familiar garage, walked to the elevator, and entered the oncology waiting room.

The oncology waiting room — well, that’s a smorgasbord of stories in itself. It’s so quiet, with its muted colors and hushed talk.

Some of the stories are obvious, with the turbans and wigs and pallor as indicators. Others are not.

I once sat close to two women who were clearly mother and daughter. How nice, I thought, that the daughter in her 20s had accompanied her ailing, middleaged mother. Then a patient’s name was called and it was the daughter who stood up and walked to the laboratory; I realized the story was something very different from what I’d so confidently assumed.

I knew nothing. I knew nothing and years later, I still know nothing. There is only guesswork. Who will be lucky?

A woman and man barrel through the waiting room into the elevator area. She is small and fine-boned and wearing a turban. She raises her hand at the receptionist, announcing, “Next week’s my last treatment! We’re going to party!”

“We are going to party!” the receptionist calls out. The elevator doors open and the woman and man disappear.

Inside the waiting room, there are other presences, too, that aren’t shared by everyone. One I can sense is my friend Martha, who also came here for treatment.

Martha — oh, you should have known her! She was so alive, so defiant. Her hair fell out, she wore a wig; her hair grew back, she dyed it blond. Her hair always grew back, even after repeated chemo and the laser brain surgery and the awful clinical trial that made her so sick. She went to Mexico, she rode a motorcycle like a hotshot, she went to Hawaii, she got her daily fruit with rum and a gaudy paper umbrella.

Martha and so many others I’ve known — women who did everything they could to live, imbibed every poison, exhausted every traditional remedy till there weren’t any left, had more spirit and spark than anyone I’ve ever known — they are the reason I become furious at any cancer survivor who’s smug.

“I always spoke of my cancer in the past tense,” one self-satisfied woman announced at a support group in Dallas, espousing the little-known grammar-cures-cancer theory. I really didn’t lunge at her brandishing a dinner fork, as some of my friends claimed later, but it certainly occurred to me — and it wasn’t a half-bad idea.

You need so much when you’re diagnosed with cancer. You need good health insurance, supportive friends and family, good doctors, good nurses, and general good health apart from those vicious malignant cells. But, good lord, you also need to be lucky.

I had all the above and I’ve also been lucky — but so many of my friends have not. “I still think about Martha a lot,” my oncologist says when I mention her. “She was such an incredible woman.”

He’s been my oncologist since I moved to Austin in 1997. By now, we are old friends. We talk about our families, our work, politics, and travel. Since my health appears good — boringly good, which is the goal, right? — we don’t linger on it much.

“I have been so fortunate,” I tell him, thinking of the 18 bonus years I’ve had in this crazy, fractious, beautiful, and ugly world. My husband’s and my children have grown to adulthood, our daughter’s getting married, we’ve celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary, we’ve traveled, we’ve written books, we’ve seen a black man elected, then re-elected president. “Sometime, I feel like I won the lottery. I’m even working on a book about women and aging. Who would have thought?”

I leave his office and the heaviness is gone. Instead, I’m filled with an oddball, almost goofy happiness. Look at the sky, breathe the fresh air, throw my head back and spin a little. If I were religious, I’d say I feel holy. But I’m not, so I’d say I feel giddy.

I know these moods. They come, they go. But while it’s here, I have to cling to it and ride it for all it”s worth.

It’s the price of being lucky — to realize it, acknowledge it, feel it, and live as well and as generously as I can. I will never deserve what I’ve been given, and I’ll spend the rest of my life trying and failing to be worthy of it.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read here is how it will happen or hear two of us talking about breast cancer


19 comments… add one
  • Moving , beautiful and bittersweet.

  • This is such a moving post, Ruth. So far I have been lucky. My family has not been touched by cancer. But anyone of us could be, at any point. It is horrific how young women today develop breast cancer. I read on the Breast Cancer Action site and at Silent Spring Institute that researchers believe toxic chemicals, including BPA and phthalates, pervasive in our environment, may be responsible. When I learned last week that the White House had squelched an EPA plan to create new regs for BPA, I wanted to scream. WTF! There has to be a way to change this situation. Surely women who have survived cancer could be more effective lobbyists than the American Chemical Council? Explain to me, please, why no one is speaking out, why the hikes and walks all aim for a cure but no one thinks prevention. I simply don’t understand.

  • Ruth,

    You hit all the right notes again. This is beautiful. Poignant. So very “you.”
    Thank you dear friend for your pearls.
    XO Nancy

  • I know the heaviness. It’s been 10 years for me but I’ve had some scares that turned out false. Scared the crap out of me. I don’t take those check ups for granted. I dread them and do a snoopy dance if I don’t have to go back for another look see.

  • Big hugs coming your way, Ruth. You speak my mind precisely. There is such a fine line between being unlucky and surviving, and I try never every to forget that. That wait in the oncologist’s office brings everything back, and it’s not until I leave there that I can breathe again.

  • Beautiful, Ruth.

  • Nancy C. Brainerd Link

    A homerun yet again. I am such a fan. I look forward to your extraordinary pieces with great anticipation and I am never disappointed. Thank you.

  • Steve Link

    “Holy” means “set apart.” That set-apartness is a curious and common experience of we survivors.

  • Wow, Ruth, I held my breath and totally rode this wave with you, not sure where it was going, and then so happy with where it all landed. Beautiful writing. Thank you.

  • Patricia Link

    Your post made me think again of a poem I wrote awhile back. My husband has survived lung cancer (18 years) and prostate cancer (9 years).

    In the Oncologist’s Waiting Room

    We sit, waiting our turn,
    among the bald, the turbaned,
    the couples holding hands.
    Some eyes show fear, some
    sparkle with determined intensity.
    Conversations are mere murmurs
    or chirpy, forced goodwill and
    sometimes, even worse, a
    litany of compared symptoms.

    Now a man and a woman check out
    at the receptionist’s desk, which is
    adorned with small banners
    citing all the positive sayings
    that seem annoying at best.
    We watch them leave and wonder
    which of them is the patient.
    It is difficult to tell sometimes.

    But, of course, we are all in need
    of treatment. We must not say
    “victim” we are told, though truly
    we are all in pain, trying to
    anticipate a time when we can be
    anonymous and not be seated among
    the strangers (who are somehow not)
    with whom we now share the bond of
    waiting in the oncologist’s office.

  • P.S. I woke in the middle of the night and for some reason, your statement “espousing the little-known grammar-cures-cancer theory” came to mind and I laughed out loud. Thank you!

  • Kate P. Link

    Wonderful post. Thanks for telling it like it is – the hours spent in the waiting room are like living in suspended animation, a slow-as-molasses time out of time. Life begins again after each visit, which is well worth a giddy spin or two or three.

  • karen kotzmann Link

    I stumbled across your blog while researching for starting one of my own. It is beautiful writing. I commend you for your “luck” at the Oncologist. I for one am in a holding pattern as my employer found an excuse to fire me and I have no insurance any longer. I am waiting until October and the hope that pre existing conditions will go away and there will not be yet another assault on Obamacare for “the good of All of us” as the powers that be call it.
    I find your writing wonderfully fluid and expressive.
    Thank you

  • I am so glad that you were so lucky. There seems to be no logic to cancer which makes it even harder to deal with.

  • I bed to differ with only one line. You are worthy of your luckiness. You’ve given the world so much. You’ve made this time here worthwhile. You’ve shared importance pieces of yourself, and you’ve encouraged the rest of us to make the best of the luck we’ve been given, too.

  • well said, Ruth. the health situation which brought me face to face with mortality was of a different sort than yours, but I relate to the luck, the mix of fragility and strength — and the thanksgiving.

  • A beautiful post, Ruth.

  • This is a very touching post, Ruth. I’m so glad you were so very lucky. Our daughter survived thyroid cancer. My mother in law just completed radiation for stage 1 breast cancer. We’ve been lucky as well and yes, I try to remember it everyday.

  • I too am a 19 survivor – of ovarian cancer. A friend shared your blog post on Facebook and I wanted to take a moment to read and comment as it rang so true. We have indeed been given a gift, not to be taken lightly or for granted.

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