A look at a survivor's survivorship appointment and how being a “patient patient” helps tackle anxiety.
In the parking lot outside the cancer treatment center, I took a deep breath. In just a few minutes, I’d be meeting with the survivorship team. This was the 6th year since my breast cancer diagnosis. The annual visits had become routine.
Inside the facility, I felt as if a heavy weight pressed down upon my shoulders. As I looked around, my eyes found men and women in various stages of their own cancer journeys. I felt so out of place. I wasn’t wearing a wrap on my head; I had a full head of hair. I wasn’t hooked up to oxygen or wearing an embedded port. For all intents and purposes, I was healthy, and I looked normal. Other than the fact that I was here and I had no breasts, no one would ever know I had breast cancer.
Making my way up the elevator to the third floor, I found a seat in the waiting room and began the routine wait. I was a patient, patient. I’d brought a book to read. I was prepared for the wait that I knew was inevitable.
After sitting for half an hour, I was called back to the exam room. Vitals were taken by a competent nurse and then the doctor tapped lightly on the door. When she came in, I was greeted by a robust smile and a hearty handshake. “How are you doing?” she asked, and I could tell, by her exuberance, she was truly interested in my answer.
I took the time to tell her how I was feeling, both physically and emotionally. When she asked if I was having any problems, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “The only thing I think is bothersome is the fact that I have a hard time sleeping.” I knew it was going to open a can of worms even before I said it, but I said it anyway. After a little digging, the doctor surmised I was dealing with past fears associated with pain from surgery. The uncomfortable feelings from remembering how I felt had transferred into my nighttime routine. In essence, she said I associated my bed with the memory of my initial diagnosis and surgery but assured me should could help. She offered a sleeping pill to help temporarily but I declined. I preferred natural options, I explained. She smiled a big smile and said she completely understood. She shared several herbal options and I was thankful.
When she was satisfied that I was doing OK, she said goodbye and her staff ushered me toward the lab for bloodwork.
The lab visit was uncomplicated. In and out quickly and was told to head over to the oncology department, as soon as my labs had come back, they’d send them over to the doctor and he’d review them with me.
Once again, I sat and waited. This time, the wait was much longer. I was surprised to find so many people waiting to see the oncologist on a Tuesday. Usually Mondays and Fridays were the busiest days. I pulled out my book and tried to focus but kept reading the same line over and over again, as I heard snippets of conversations from those around me.
It was apparent the woman next to me was in the last stages of cancer. In a wheelchair, she huddled underneath a blanket as her husband tended to her needs. My heart went out to her and I felt guilty. She was so ill, and I was not.
Over an hour later, I was called for my appointment. Walking down the hall with the nurse, I tried to smile as she made small talk. I hadn’t realized how nervous I’d been until that minute. Either the lab work would be good, or it would be bad. There was no in between, and I was concerned, although I hoped for no recurrence the possibility was still there.
In the exam room, I was told the wait could be long. A nurse explained the doctor was running behind due to unforeseen circumstances. Once again, I was the patient patient. I smiled and said, “No problem, I completely understand.” And I did.
Another thirty minutes passed before I heard a slight rap on the door. “Come in,” I said as I sat up in the exam chair expecting to see my doctor. Instead, a nurse practitioner stood before me. She explained the office was packed and it would be at least another hour before Dr. H could come visit with me. Asking permission to take my case for the day, the nurse practitioner waited for my answer. I nodded in agreement, after all, I was the patient patient.
She sat attentively on a stool in front of a laptop. Looking in my direction, she asked “How are things going for you?” I told her, generally speaking, “Everything is going well.” She smiled and made some notations in my online chart.
Paper in hand, the nurse practitioner rolled over close to me. Brace for impact, I thought, she’s about to give me the results of the lab work. I was taken aback when she put her hand on my arm and said, in a jovial tone, “Relax! Everything is good! Your tests came back great.”
Never once did she say, “You’re in remission,” or “You’re cancer free,” or “There’s no evidence of disease,” although I would have liked to have heard those words, I’d never heard them once since I’d had surgery to remove the tumor.
She handed me a copy of a comparative chart for my last three blood draws. I could clearly see a reduction in the numbers for my tumor markers. The reality of that fact felt good.
When she completed the physical exam, she asked if I was OK with not seeing the doctor. I assured her I was, thanked her for her time, and walked toward the exit.
When I exited the building, I exhaled. I didn’t realize it, but I’d been holding my breath for some time. An invisible weight lifted, and I thought, “Another year down, and I’m still alive.”
Keeping my eyes fixed, I was determined to look forward. I didn’t want to turn around and look at the cancer treatment center. I’d just received good news, and nothing was going to rob me of that blessing.
There was no need to announce it to the world. There was no need for a survivorship party. But if I’d had a chance, I would’ve walked back into the building and issued a pep talk to all the men and women who were waiting for their turn to see the doctor. I would have said there is hope and although we’re all battle worn and weary, we’re all survivors. Whether it’s for the next second, the next minute or the next decade, we survive because we choose to do so.
No red circles marked upcoming appointments on my calendar. I was free, free to be me, the me I’ve always been, the same person I was before, during, and now after cancer. I was a patient, patient but I was also a thriving survivor. I planned to live my life and living it well until next year’s appointment and then, the routine would start all over again.
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