FIVE DAYS LEFT
The door blasted open after a brief knock,
“I’m sorry to interrupt… insurance card and id, please,” hand out with eighties acrylic metallic chipped blue way too long naiIs came at me and my surprised face.
“GOOD MORNING.” I said with that little hint of potential trail I have been known for. “Good morning,” she said back looking and smelling like the reason she hadn’t been at the desk when I entered this morning for my 8:15am appointment was because she was out smoking a Virginia Slim or something. Her hair was straggly, her uniform was ruffled and typical of most interactions I have had with front desk medical staff is that familiar aroma of really bad, too much perfume.
I had already been greeted by two other women, first one with zero smile telling me that the secretary would be in shortly and to have a seat. The follow up woman who was at least smiling came out to tell me that she would start without said front desk person who would catch up with us later. Do these women know that I am here for a preregistration of having my 52 year old breasts cut off?! Or am I just another mastectomy on the long list of patients today until 5:00 when they can go home and watch tv in their lazy boy recliners?
I walked into the pre op preregistration appointment this morning to review for the thousandth time my medical history that never seems to be shared amongst the individual medical teams with an unnamed, very unfit, but lovely and kind woman. It is like the profile of all the front line medical staff is:
a. overweight and or unhealthy(check)
b. bad hair (check)
c. too much perfume (check)
d. ruffled uniform (check)
e. chipped nail polish (check)
f. frequent peripheral discussions of where they went to dinner last night, recipes, diets, or what is for lunch in ear shot of patient. (check)
g. smiling and kind (if you feel like it, sure, if not, no worries it won’t impact your job.)
Add to this the drabbest paint color with zero art and a blaring television screaming out some horrible news with a huge hand written sign saying “DON’T TOUCH TELEVISON!” I felt like I was preregistering for a prison sentence at the ACI. And to top it off, my tech who was taking my information, was shortly going to be taking my blood pressure.
Is it too much to ask for a simple name introduction? I don’t even need a handshake, and frankly don’t really want one because no one seems to do much hand washing. Is it too much to ask for eye contact with empathy and the simple question, “ How are you feeling today four days before ZERO DAYS LEFT?”
My tech, I’ll refer to her as B, after taking my history and re asking me all the questions on the form I was asked to fill out before I arrived to save time, she began to review with me the way the day was going to roll on ZERO DAYS LEFT. As she was reviewing this with me, she put the electric blood pressure cuff on me and sat back down, (probably too exhausting to have to manually do it, that was mean, she was really nice, I take that back)
“Your surgery is at 7:30, you will arrive at 6:00am. There is valet parking, and check in to get your badge, then you will go to the second floor. You are allowed 2 guests to come with you. Then you will change and (insert Charlie Brown adult character voice here) “blah blah blah,” the visual of this sooner than later experience was starting to make my heart race. Oh but wait, blood pressure cuff on squeezing, breathe, breathe… Blood pressure cuff off. Digital reading out of my sight and as usual unless you ask for it, you don’t get it.
“What was it?” I asked as I peered around to the readout. 131 over 81. “That’s high,” I say. “Can we do it again?” “Yes,” she replies chuckling as we both acknowledge that taking someone’s blood pressure while explaining the pre breast removal procedure is not helpful. I saw her record the pressure anyway and we moved on to another conversation and forgot to redo the blood pressure. Ruh-roh, now the insurance company will have me in their system as borderline and some doctor now has the sales opportunity to try to rope me in to the vortex of for life medication. (Yes, this is how I think, my father taught me this. Scary.)
After phase one is complete, off to the next step of blood work. Blood work girl, who shall remain nameless because like B didn’t offer her name, (the only reason I knew B’s name was because I asked) had chipped nails, too much perfume and one glove on one hand as she began touching my skin with the non gloved hand looking for the perfect vein.
Mmmmm. Should I or shouldn’t I? What the hell. “Do you wash your hands before doing this?” “Yes.” She replied as she continued to look for a vein with her bare hand and make small talk.
Maybe she thought I meant after she was done? The funny thing about this is that B had just reviewed the importance of showering with some chemical antibacterial skin cleaner the night before the surgery and the day of to “prevent infection.” She was sure to tell me that despite the front of the bottle marked CHLOROX (as in the bleach, logo and all) it was not, in fact, chlorox.
“So you are telling me to use this and then afterwards I am going to put my clothes on, won’t there be bacteria on my clothes? “They will be clean clothes,” she replied matter of factly. See, things have to make sense to me and this doesn’t. But neither does the BRCH2 genetic mutation and all of this for profit medical world I find myself in.
Back to nameless bloodwork girl. The question about washing her hands transported me back to my brother, Michael, when he was rushed to the hospital for the last time a few months before he died. Like me with writing, he chose to video everything as his method of documentation and self therapy. Walks into the hospital, going for chemo, bloodwork, radiation appointments, he amassed all of this tragic and sad part of his life on endless VHS tapes. I don’t think HIPPA (hypocrisy is what I think of everytime I am asked to sign a HIPPA form, gives me a chuckle, gotta get laughs in as frequently as possible) existed yet. Email had really just come out and most people had AOL. There were no cell phones and cameras and movies were still the old school way. As I write this, it seriously seems like a million years ago. What he left us with was volumes of him and his voice and his cancer experience in 1994–95. Because he was only 24, he was unusual in these experiences because he stood out among the countless patients who were well into their sixties and beyond. If he wasn’t taping, one of us was and at this appointment, Eva, his beloved girlfriend was on task in the emergency room. When the nurse came in to take his blood and he noticed she not only wasn’t washing her hands, but was also negligent in putting gloves on, he commanded it.
I have this on tape, of course this would be out of the question these days, but he was in the outskirts of Beautfort, North Carolina and perhaps they were a little more lax (or didn’t know how to shut him down.)
I am amazed at how much my brother’s cancer experience and my father’s cancer six years ago have triggered me in all of this diagnosis and trips to doctors and hospitals. When people say the typical things like , “you are so lucky, they caught this so early. You are going to beat this.” I surely know this is most likely true, but the emotional button goes south and I have to adjust my lense constantly.
I can’t help but automatically go to the tragedy part of their experiences even though I know mine was caught early. Even though I know it is not the same cancer, even though I know that my breast cancer surviving grandmother never got breast cancer again and lived to almost 93, I am still transported to the feelings, the deep scars of the loss of my only sibling who I loved more than life itself.
My therapist told me it is reopening the trauma wound. This makes total sense to me. Losing a sibling when I was only twenty nine, barely into my marriage and my career to a rare form of unexplainable cancer, lung cancer and no he didn’t smoke, was and still is traumatic. I miss him more during this because it is like reliving his illness and I can feel him with me and around me. This alone gives me incredible strength and peace along with the fear and sadness that weaves in and out like the bay on a windy choppy day.
Cancer, twenty one years ago was a totally different experience than now. I don’t think it was the big business it is now. Just the pink movement alone, the pink bracelets that all the boys were wearing when my son was in high school that said I LOVE BOOBIES. Christ, there are even pink ribbon license plates right along side the pro life ones, the red sox ones and the plum point light house plates. The business of cancer is the part of cancer that is most startling.
Besides the business of cancer, breast cancer and all cancer changes you. Whether you ask for it or not, whether you try to deny it, move past it, try to be a rockstar with it, you are transformed whether you want to be or not. I used to cringe when I would hear the endless cliché quotes that spew on auto pilot.
“God doesn’t give you what you can’t handle.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“My grandmother, mother, sister, aunt, best friend, co worker had breast cancer and they are doing fine.”
“You are strong, you will kick cancer’s ass.”
Where I used to roll my eyes in private at the endless stream coming at me, I now embrace them and actually really enjoy these short one liners. I have found them to be true and loving and well intended. Wayne Dyer used to say, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
What I have learned this time around is to accept help, love, words, offers of care with enthusiasm and joy. I have learned that I don’t have to be so hard on myself and can work on being more selfish with my time and where I want to spend it and more importantly who I want to spend it with. If cancer changes me this way, then these changes are changes I welcome despite the trauma and sadness. I bow to the lessons and I surrender to them. I am also deeply humbled by them and continuously surprised by them.
My beautiful brother, Michael, before cancer. October 20, 1970 – November 20, 1995