The Moment Arrives –
On the day before meeting with my oncologist to review my pathology results, I felt good. My strength was coming back, and I had been able to transition off the prescription pain medication to Tylenol. I was amazed at the incremental resilience I was feeling in my body on an almost hourly basis.
Under the watchfuleye of my Mom, the past few days had been organized around a daily outing, which provided us with some fresh air without straying too far from home. But on this last day of conscious ignorance about my diagnosis, I wanted to push the envelope.
Let’s walk downtown for lunch and see a movie, I said to my Mom.
My Mom immediately replied, Are you up for it?
Had I not titled this blog patient and empowered, I would have most likely gone with Are You Up for It? This was a phrase that was frequently directed to me by Mom.
After 44 years of being my Mother – which included my challenging adolescence – my Mom developed a very effective strategy for influencing my behavior. Rather than responding with the counterpoint to what I’ve declared, which would almost guarantee me to dig in my heels, she delivers the gentle prompt, Are you up for it?
Like Pavlov’s dog, hearing these words immediately forces me to take a beat and reevaluate my choice. Ninety percent of the time I proceed with what I had initially intended to do. But the prompt, the pause and at least one deep breath always create a moment of much-needed self-awareness, which provides a more conscious and healthy mindset to go forward and take action.
Picking a place for lunch was easy. We would go to the Nordstrom Grill, as it would require us to walk through the shoe department. I always considered visiting Nordstrom as a healing experience, even before my current situation.
Choosing a movie proved more difficult. I didn’t want to see anything funny, because my incision hurt when I laughed. I also didn’t want to see something sad or dramatic, as I would probably collapse into a puddle of tears on the sticky theatre floor.
How about ‘Into the Woods’? my Mom asked.
Yes, I instantly replied. Meryl Streep makes everything better.
We spent the next several hours immersed in Meryl’s visual fairy tale, filledwith denseforests, evil forces, heroic gestures and unexpected plot twists. Ironically, the movie we picked as a “safe choice” was hitting a little too close for comfort.
It was early evening as we walked home. This time tomorrow, my circumstances would look and feel much different.
I turned to my Mom. When my oncologist told you that the mass was something, but he didn’t know what,did he leave room for the possibility that it actually may be nothing?
We stopped walking. My Mom looked at me with a soft expression I remembered from my childhood. Honey, I don’t think so. I think he’s confident that this is serious.
We resumed our walk, and I spoke of how hard it was for me to reconcile that the worst may be to come when every day I was feeling so much stronger. I was almost two weeks into my recovery from surgery and less than 24 hours from finally getting answers. Later in my journey, I would learn about the stages of grief and acceptance in a cancer diagnosis. At this moment, I was most clearly in the “bargaining” stage.
When we arrived at my oncologist’s office the following morning, I was again instantly calmed by the bright and welcoming energy that enveloped the space.
I also was aware of how sharing this experience with my Mom drove us into the classically defined roles of mother and daughter in very instinctual and primal ways. As we entered the waiting room, I showed my Mom around as though I were back in kindergarten searching for my artwork on the wall. I was also holding her hand, which I had been doing a lot since the day of my surgery.
Before meeting with my oncologist, I needed to have the staples removed from my incision. The nurse who I had met a month earlier at my initial consultation greeted me with a warm smile. She explained that she would remove the staples first, then my Mom would come back and join me to meet with my oncologist.
As I lay on the table while the nurse removed my stitches, I experienced two things that had become commonplace in this profoundly unfamiliar territory. The first was the nurse, who lifted up my hospital gown and exclaimed, What a great looking incision!
I had lost count of how many times I had heard this phrase while I was in the hospital. Every doctor, nurse, lab technician and even my oncologist just marveled over my incision, as though it were a beautiful piece of artwork. But, as the person who was literally providing the museum wall to which this masterpiece was stapled, I felt otherwise.
I tried to keep my tone of voice in check as I looked at the nurse and asked, Why exactly do you consider this a great looking incision?
Oh, sometimes incisions don’t heal well at all, the nurse explained. They can get infected and cause all sorts of problems……
I had heard enough. Let’s not tempt fate. I get it. I have a great looking incision.
I then shifted to the second familiar topic. On the exam room counter lay my patient file. In a few minutes, the nurse would take the file from the exam room to my oncologist, who would carry it into the consultation room where I would be waiting with my Mom. My guess was this was about 15 minutes away from happening. But the answers were right there, less than three feet away from me.
This reminded me of the scans I had taken a month ago and the one-sided staring contest I had with the technician who had an early heads up on what was growing inside me. Now my oncologist’s nurse “knew” the answers to more urgent questions, which I simultaneously did not want to hear, but desperately needed to know.
My Mom was once again holding my hand as my oncologist entered the consultation room. Throughout my life, I have been told that I have an excellent memory. My ability to recall experiences and conversations with almost photographic precision is something I have always relied on. However, as my medical odyssey unfolded, so did a shift in how I processed actual experiences.
It basically comes down to this. When I recall a serious discussion with my oncologist, what first comes to mind is how I felt, followed by what I saw. What I heard comes last, which is one of the reasons why – going forward – I would always have someone with me in the room to corroborate what happened.
The following is an amalgamation of what my oncologist said.
Your surgery was classified as R0, which means the tumor was removed entirely and there are no current signs of residual disease. The pathology confirmed that you had a Sertoli-Leydig tumor growing inside the connective tissue of your left ovary. This is an extremely rare form of ovarian cancer. There was some microscopic spread of the disease into your uterus, but we addressed that by the hysterectomy we performed during surgery.
This is serious but treatable. Because this type of cancer is so rare and we don’t know much about it, I strongly recommend that you have chemotherapy. If a female in my family were faced with this situation, I would want her to have chemotherapy.
I had not fully metabolized what I was hearing when my oncologist’s cell phone rang. He apologized and said he needed to leave the room but would return momentarily.
I was grateful for the break.
Still holding hands, my Mom and I turned to face one another.
Are you ok? she asked.
Yes, I said.
Are you ok? I asked.
Yes, she said.
Once again, my Mom’s face melted into the soft, reassuring expression from my childhood. She squeezed my hand tight and said, Honey, only you would get Designer Cancer.
We both burst out laughing.
Tears followed as we waited for my oncologist to return.
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