Today I visited my oncologist for a checkup.
Waiting to see her, I sat in a floral fabric chair by a matching wood veneer coffee table strewn with worn magazines – Architectural Digest, Better Homes and Gardens and some old Time issues – I couldn’t help but think of how I was feeling seven years ago.
Then I was anxiously waiting to know my blood counts – the white cells, red cells and platelets – to see if they were sufficient for my scheduled chemotherapy.
That January, my white blood cells were so low that some doctors thought I should enter the hospital for IV antibiotics. (I declined.) My mouth was so full of sores I could hardly speak or eat. My hair was gone and I wore a strange wig. My right arm was broken (yes, I’m right-handed) so I couldn’t write or type. I was pale, weak with anemia and covered with bruises.
Chemo-brain, which I’d never learned about in med school, was just starting to set in. Before then, I’d always taken pride in keeping up with medical and science journals. But I could barely muster the energy to take a glance at those heavyweights. Even regular magazines appeared fuzzy, a scary symptom for an oncologist who knows too well that breast cancer cells can spread upstairs.
I wanted my next treatment. I wanted to get it over with, to put the breast cancer behind me.
After a while my oncologist stepped out into the waiting area and guided me to the hall by her office. “The cells are low,” she said. “We’ll have to wait another week, that’s all.”
I knew she was right. But a week seemed like a lifetime to me then.
I understood that giving chemotherapy suppresses the bone marrow, the body cavity where blood cells form. If my white cells dropped any lower, I’d be at serious risk for bacteria in the blood or invasive yeast in my mouth and throat. If the treatment reduced the red cell-forming elements in the marrow, I’d become more anemic. Already I was on a medication that affected the function of platelets, the blood-clotting cells. If the platelets fell further, I’d be at greater risk for bleeding.
I had no choice but to wait. So I did. The next week I got my treatment, and we were back on track, at least for a while.
Today, sitting in a similar chair, I calmly read the arts section of the newspaper and started working on the crossword. I’d tucked the New England Journal of Medicine into my bag, thinking I should read that, but it didn’t seem right. I wanted to remember what it’s like to be a patient who doesn’t know if she’ll make it through.
Several of my friends, mainly women, are affected now by cancer that’s spread. They go to see their oncologists regularly, and sit and wait for their blood counts, and sometimes get their treatments. Most hold undeniably upbeat, positive attitudes. But the reality is tough-going, day-to-day and month after month, with no easy end in sight.
How much easier it is to look back on a situation – a tumor — that was removed in an early stage. My cancer treatment wasn’t easy, but I don’t regret it for a second.
When my oncologist took me into her office today we chatted for a while and then she examined me.
“Come back next year,” she said.
In my medical storybook, it doesn’t get much better than that.