Waiting for Answers –

After spending five days in the hospital, I headed home…to wait. I would not see my oncologist for another week.  The last conversation we had at my bedside amounted to we just don’t know anything yet. Before the surgery – which at this point seemed like a lifetime ago – my oncologist gave me a heads up that the pathology results normally takes a week and the holidays would delay it by an additional few days.

Fortunately, my concerns were much more immediate. I was still in a great deal of pain, so finding a comfortable sleeping position was at the top of my mind. I thought more about what I would do in the next hour than what I would learn in the next week. During nights when I couldn’t sleep, I became a devoted Amazon Prime shopper. While it would take over a week to receive my pathology results, it took just a few hours to receive every possible foam pillow and item for lumbar support.

One week after surgery, I experienced a major shift in how I felt physically. Leading up to this moment all my pain was concentrated across the length of my incision. Like air in an overblown balloon, the pain created intense pressure that was seeking an escape. But on this day, I felt relief.  Rather than succumbing to the pressure with a hard “pop,” the pain deflated slowly but consistently. I still had weeks of recovery and restrictions on my movement, but pain management was now not consuming my every waking thought.

This meant I was able to focus on other things, such as the impending meeting with my oncologist.  And with this realization, whatever space was created through the lessening of my physical pain was immediately filled by an emotional tsunami. My Mom asked me what I felt like eating for breakfast, and I fell apart. The choice between a smoothie or an English muffin opened a floodgate of tears.

It was that exact moment when it hit me – I have cancer.

Ironically, the pain from my surgery had served as armor, protecting my brain from running amok with the ramifications of we just don’t know what it is yet. Whereas the pathology was unknown, the pain was real like a crying child. It demanded my immediate focus and attention.

As the pain dissipated, I had no other distractions. I wasn’t working, and there was only so much Downton Abbey I could watch before reminding myself that I was inhabiting the final days of “not knowing.” This psychic pain was as deep and pressure filled as any physical pain I had been experiencing.

The following day was Wednesday.  Two more days before I would see my oncologist.

Three years earlier, after living on the East Coast for my entire life, I moved to Seattle. While the newness of the move had worn off, I still had not fully acclimated to the time difference. Most mornings, I would wake up feeling instantly behind upon seeing a full queue of emails and texts from my East Coast colleagues and family members.

There were days when it felt like the whole world was sharing in a collective experience that I missed, simply due to my geographic location. That Wednesday was one of those days.

When I emerged from my bedroom on Wednesday morning, I found my Mom looking at the television with a pained expression.

There was a terrorist attack in Paris, she said.

Through a combination of explanations from my Mom and CNN, I learned of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office. Twelve people had been killed. After not having any real awareness of current events for over a week, this was yet another shock to my system.

As I watched the story unfold, it oddly both distracted me from my current situation and made me embody it more fully. I remember thinking how I went to bed feeling like Atlas with the full weight of the world bearing down on my shoulders. Now, I was learning the horror of how twelve people lost their lives – simply by going to work.

Witnessing this distressing news through the lens of my own personal crisis created a different type of self-awareness. I thought of the numerous times I had learned of global disasters, heard distressing news from loved ones or even suffered my own heartbreaks and disappointments. Maybe it was human nature or my own personal coping mechanism, but when previously confronted with deep feelings of fear, pain or loss, I pushed to “get over it” quickly.

Somehow, I knew that this wasn’t going to work anymore. My years spent building up emotional armor would now no longer serve me. The thought of the “unknown,” whether it related to my pathology results or whatever else may follow, was something I was going to have to deal with.

I said to my Mom, I need to get to get of the house.  Let’s go for a walk.

Are you up for it? she asked.

I don’t know.  But let’s try. 


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