I don’t know how this story ends, but here is how it began.
I had a colonoscopy earlier in the week. The doctor found and removed a polyp.
“He didn’t seem to be at all worried about it,” my husband said.
I stared at the photograph of the polyp. It looked like a white canker sore against the pink interior of my colon.
“Why wasn’t he worried about it?” I asked my husband.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Days passed. Occasionally, I thought about the polyp and how it was being biopsied. Yesterday, I went on the Internet. According to the Mayo Clinic website, the “majority” of polyps are benign.
I know about great odds like that. When I had biopsies on my breasts in 1995, I was told that nine out of ten come back negative. Nine out of ten — but somebody has to be the one, right? That was me.
Strange, isn’t it, that you’re supposed to think positive (which always annoys me, but that’s another story). When you get a biopsy, though, you want to think negative. Negative is good, positive lands you in a vat of worms.
This morning, when I got back from an appointment, the voice-mail message indicator on our phone was lit up. It was someone from the doctor’s office. Carol, she said her name was. Give her a call back about the test results.
I called her back and got bounced around, since she hadn’t left her extension number. As it turns out, her name was Cara. She was busy and couldn’t talk to me.
I left my cell number and hung up the phone. I realized how much I’d forgotten in the past 12 years since my own cancer treatment.
I’d forgotten how your hands turn icy with fear.
How your stomach contracts.
How your heart flutters.
I’d forgotten how it feels to lose control. (Or, sure, lose the illusion of control. But illusions get us through life.)
Oddly, I was having lunch with my friend Paula, who had been diagnosed with colon cancer in January. She’s just finished chemo. She’s also the reason I’d scheduled an earlier colonoscopy. “Just for peace of mind,” I’d told the nurse. This was peace of mind?
Driving to Paula’s house, I wished I’d listened to the nurse’s message more closely. Had she sounded too brisk? That would be a bad sign. Nobody likes giving bad news, so they talk quickly. Had she changed her name from Carol to Cara just to avoid my call? If it had been good news, wouldn’t she have just left a cheery message?
This desperate analysis of medical messengers, I have to tell you, is excruciating. I’ve stared at technicians taking chest x-rays, nervously scanning their faces for a sign, any sign, but knowing they have been trained to keep an emotionless face. There’s no greater sign of your own helplessness than someone else who knows more than you do and is trying not to communicate it.
I told Paula about the phone call. She understood, better than anyone, how I felt. I had to apologize to her, too. I knew I’d been sympathetic about her cancer and its treatment; but as the years pass, you simply forget how overwhelming the fear is. How you try to hide it because you’re so ashamed of it (but why?). How no one mentions it (why here, too? Politeness?). I’d been a pretty good friend, but could have been better, more empathic.
“If they catch it as a polyp, it’s just fine,” Paula pointed out.
Polyp! What an idiotic term. Silly. Devoid of the kind of gravity you find in, say, tumor. How ridiculous to get upset about something with a ridiculous name. Still, it spoiled my appetite.
After lunch, I drove back home, wondering why the nurse hadn’t called me back. Was she taking a swig of courage from a Jack Daniels bottle before she had to talk to me?
My cell rang, just five minutes ago. It was Cara.
“The test was fine,” she said. “Completely benign. No chance any cancer could grow there.”
I thanked her repeatedly, even though that makes as much sense as thanking a meteorologist for the weather. Who cares? For an hour and a half — even though it seemed far longer — I’d been reminded of a time I’d almost forgotten.
Maybe I needed that reminder. Your sympathetic imagination can falter over the years. Maybe it’s good to be shaken up again, to remember what you should never forget.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)