Ruth: After you finish cancer treatments, you usually come back for checkups every three months. Then, assuming all is well after two years, you shift to every six months. At five years, the checkups usually move to once a year.
For me, for most cancer veterans, these checkups are pure hell.
When I was closer to my diagnosis and infinitely more fragile, I used to go nuts for several days preceding the checkup. Crying, heart racing, icy hands, short-to-nonexistent fuse, rampant fear. The tests, in particular, were torture. I loathed getting a chest x-ray, all the time watching the technician (who must have been tutored to keep a neutral face), knowing that she/he knew something, saw something, possessed some secret knowledge and was keeping it from me. To me, there’s no more helpless feeling in the world.
But, if you’re lucky — as I’ve been — the years pass and the number of checkups slowly mount. Five, seven, 10 years.
Today, it’s more than 12 years past my original diagnosis. My odds for continued health are much better than they once were. I know what will happen later this morning: my husband and I will drive to the oncologist’s office. I’ll be wearing, as always, my “lucky” necklace. (If you’re not superstitious to begin with, cancer makes you that way. I’ve still got a wig that sits atop a styrofoam head at the back of my closet. Several years ago, one of my best friends gave away the wig she’d worn during her treatment; a week later, she was diagnosed with a recurrence of the Hodgkin’s that eventually killed her. So my wig will be with me forever.)
But, anyway. We’ll sit in that damned waiting room and I’ll search every face there and try to understand what’s going on with every person there. I’ll want desperately to reach out to them — especially those who are obviously ill and going through treatment — and tell them I understand. But I’m also frightened of them and don’t want to get too close. Because, ideally, I will leave that waiting room today and won’t be back for another year. I’m an annual visitor, I like to think, someone who used to belong in that room, but doesn’t any longer.
And because, too, I feel like a fraud around them. Once, 12 years ago, I had a bad, scary year. But since then, I’ve been lucky. I’ve had too many friends who haven’t been as fortunate — who’ve gone through repeated scares, biopsies, surgeries, chemo regimes, clinical trials, dire diagnoses, wasting away, death. Once I sat and listened to two of my friends who had metastatic cancer. They were talking, very matter-of-factly, about liver biopsies. You have to be awake, unsedated and unmedicated, for this procedure. “My doctor told me it would hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt before,” one of them said. “But it would be over in a few seconds.”
I tried to conjure up the worst pain I’d ever suffered. “Worse than childbirth?” I asked her, even though I shouldn’t have said anything, I shouldn’t have tried to drag in my own petty concerns and easier experiences into the story she was telling, which I couldn’t begin to imagine.
Her gaze kind of flickered over me. “Childbirth,” she said, “lasts a lot longer.”
The point — assuming I have one — is that there’s a horrific world I only have a glancing knowledge about. People think I’m “brave” because I’m a survivor, but I know how little I’ve gone through, really. Once a year, I have to approach that horrific world once again — just for an hour or so — and I realize once again how frightened and inadequate I am.
So we’ll go there and sit and wait and I’ll give blood and tell the technician what I always say: “As long as I don’t see the needle, I’m fine.” And I’ll get a bandaid and will be marched into one of the small rooms beyond and my oncologist will come in and poke around and pronounce me as “doing quite well,” then he’ll ask my husband and me about trips we’ve taken over the past several months and we’ll shake hands and leave and go back to the big, bright, staggering, non-cancer world. And I’ll wonder, once again, why that cold fear always sweeps over me this time of year. I should be braver and calmer by now. But I never am. Maybe, after all these years, I should stop being surprised by my own buckling knees.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)