His thumb drew slow circles on the back of my hand. He squeezed my fingers gently.
“Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it,” he said softly. I nodded, not really listening.
The man in white arrived. Entering the small room, he leaned against the door clutching a clipboard and some files. He looked uncomfortable, not like he recited pathology reports every day. I wondered if he picked that spot so he could leave quickly if I got too upset.
“I have some very bad news, and then some very good news,” he said looking down at me. “You have cancer.”
My husband’s grip tightened as he turned to look at me.
I stared at a point in space, not focused on anything. Air molecules maybe.
The doctor stood silently for a few moments, and then sat at the small desk. He went on to explain why my prognosis was rosy and bright. I was one of the lucky ones. I would live.
I didn’t hear any of it. I never got past ‘You have cancer.’ They tell me that’s a very normal response. They told me a lot of things.
There are some things they missed though. Like anger. Not simply a passing emotion, my anger burned brightly for a long time. The kind of fury that keeps one warm at night. This was especially true when, two years later, the man holding my hand received a cancer diagnosis of his own.
They didn’t prepare me for the isolation cancer imposes. Shunning, and separating the afflicted from the healthy is an institutional response I found. When first diagnosed, the treatments recommended by the oncologists were conducted in the same part of the hospital as everything else. Cancer patients shared a waiting room with everyone else.
I think we freaked ’em out. Wasn’t long before us cancer people had our very own lovely wing-floor-section whatever. No more would the vasectomy men and urinary track infection women have to look at us, with our bald heads, and IV ports hanging out of our necklines.
People’s reactions proved to be an interesting study in human behavior. Some simply didn’t know what to say. Uncomfortable, they avoided eye contact. And after a while, me. For others, I represented their worst nightmare. Oh, she has cancer! Run!
My spousal unit and our offspring struggled to support and distract me. “What do you need?” I heard over and over. The truth was, immediately following my diagnosis, I didn’t know what I needed. When contemplating your mortality, you come to the realization that you may lose everything: sunsets, macaroni and cheese, your favorite TV show, and of course, everyone you love. That’s a hell of a lot of grieving to work through. I didn’t know where to begin, nor how to help them. I will never fully know how hard they fought to keep our connections alive.
My mom, also a cancer survivor, told me there would come a time when I wouldn’t think about cancer every day. Now that I’m a ten-year survivor I no longer check myself for lumps at stop lights. My mom also told me that the day I didn’t think about cancer would be a long time coming. She was right.