Brenda Denzler is a writer and editor living in North Carolina. She received her doctorate from Duke University and worked as an editor at UNC-Chapel Hill before she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2009. Since then, she has devoted a great deal of her time and energy to understanding and writing about cancer, cancer treatment and the impact of pre-existing PTSD on the ability of doctors to give and patients to receive medical treatment.
A wry look at a "day in the life" of a (grumpy) cancer survivor. Come on! You all know you've been there!
I suppose I was grumpy. The cashier at the self-check registers commented that for some reason everyone seemed irritated today. Having just used my very last ounce of energy to remain vertical while I tried to navigate, re-navigate and then RE-re-navigate the quirks of the big-box hardware store’s enigmatic self-check system, I testily offered one possible explanation. As I grabbed my receipt and staggered toward the door, hoping to reach my car before I collapsed, I noticed another customer giving me the stink-eye. I imagined that in his head he was calling me the technical term for a female dog.
"But you don’t understand!" I wanted to say.
Not only would it have been pointless, however, it would have meant having to remain vertical for another few seconds—or longer, if he took the bait and engaged with me on the topic of my current irascible persona. I could ill afford the energy that would require, so I just ignored his ocular insult and went out the door, keys in hand, trying to remember where I’d parked my car.
I don’t want to be that person, but sometimes I am: the one you quickly dislike because she doesn’t present herself as a pleasant, easy-going kind of gal. You never know what is making someone grumpy. For me, it was trying to struggle through the long-term effects of cancer treatments, though you’d never have known it just to look at me. Cardiovascular and neuropathic issues, after all, don’t show on the outside.
I would have preferred to stay at home that day. I’d been doing too much recently, and I needed some down time. But I had three little errands to run, and I was really craving a frappe, so after a careful calculation of how much energy it would take to do these errands compared to how much “umph” I thought I had in me, I decided to get it done.
Errand one: Take some things to the sharing shed at the recycling center. Unfortunately, the parking places near the shed were either occupied or blocked off, so I had to park further down and carry my few items up the mild incline. Not a big deal, right? Just a few extra steps? But it was an expenditure of energy that I hadn’t counted on making. Oh, well. Things happen.
Errand two: Take a couple of bills to the post office and drop them in the drive-by mail drop. Easily done.
Errand three: Stop and get my frappe. There was a line at the drive-through, but only a few cars in the parking lot. Not many people inside? It might be faster to go inside to order. I walked in and took my place in line behind a slim older woman with curly gray-and-white hair.
Unfortunately, it was a mistake to equate number of parked cars with number of minutes required—a miscalculation I began to recognize as the minutes dragged by, the line oozed its way forward, and I began to feel like I was going to fall flat on my face.
Finally, the woman ahead of me got to the front of the line. After some dialogue, the cashier motioned for a manager to come over, and the three engaged in a lengthy conversation, complete with expansive gestures and multiple attempts to manipulate little pieces of paper. Clearly some kind of high-level negotiations were under way up there! I stood patiently a respectful distance back, awaiting my turn and trying not to focus on the way my internal energy meter was rapidly running down.
Just as I thought I detected body language suggesting the end of their summit talk, the conversation turned jovial. The gray-haired woman leaned in across the counter, said something, and then laughed like a coquettish schoolgirl as she straightened up and glanced to her left.
"Look at me!" I screamed in my head. "How about noticing that there are people in line behind you who would like to order, too! Cut the chit-chat and move on!"
After a few more comments and flirtatious giggles, the gray-haired lady finally moved to the side and it was my turn to advance to the counter, against which I gratefully propped myself. As efficiently as I could, I placed my order, paid, and moved to one side to wait. Alas! When it came out, it was a latte—not a frappe. It only took a minute to re-make, but by this time I was truly feeling as spent as the four bucks I’d just dropped.
Errand four: You’d think if I was feeling this worn out already that I would have forgotten about the fourth errand and just gone home, right? Wrong. I had come into town with the intention to do four errands, and I was determined stay the course. Besides, how long could it take to buy a four-foot fluorescent bulb?
Turns out, it takes longer than you’d think—especially when you have to sort through the myriad of bulbs available to find exactly the size you need, and then are confronted with two options. Cool light and 34 watts? Or warm light and 40?
It’s surprising how much energy it takes to think. For every second I spent on my feet pondering the inscrutable nature of fluorescent lighting, my decision-making capacity diminished exponentially. I finally just grabbed one of the bulbs and headed to the self-check registers.
By now I was in full "sit down or die" mode. I needed to quit moving, and I needed to quit NOW! Staggering up to the register, trying not to tremble from the exertion of pushing past my fatigue, I quickly scanned my purchase, put it on the scale, and watched the computer slow down (argh!) as it tried to figure out how to verify the weight of a four-foot item that rested in part off the scale. This weighty decision eventually made, I pushed "finish and pay," chose "credit" and swiped my debit/credit card. Ah, but no! The computer asked for my PIN.
"I’m not inputting my PIN for a credit purchase on this card," I thought wearily. "I use the PIN for debits only. Would providing my PIN here open me up to identity theft if the store got hacked?" Like that’s what an exhausted cancer survivor needs, right?
Thinking I’d made a mistake, I tried again, with the same result. By this time, I was fighting back tears of frustration borne of a fatigue so intense that I had to fight the urge to drop to the floor in a crumpled, whimpering little ball and wait a few hours until I felt strong enough to move.
"M’am," said the nearby cashier. "If you put your PIN in, it will accept your card as a credit purchase."
"That makes no sense," I said testily as I pulled out the store’s own credit card to use instead. "I don’t use the PIN for credit purchases on that card—only debit purchases. It makes no sense why I should do it for a credit purchase now."
As I swiped the store-issued card, the cashier moved over to help the customer self-checking behind me and made the comment about grumpy people. "You know one thing that would help?" I asked, turning to face them both. "A self-check system that works. Having to try three times to buy a light bulb is ridiculous."
"M’am," she said, "that’s just the way our system operates. It’s not broken."
"I’m sure that’s true," I snapped back. "But the IT folks who designed your system need to take another look at the logic pathways they’ve built into it."
That’s when I got the bystander’s stink-eye. I understand. It was not my finest hour. Bone-crushing fatigue had made what should have been a minor irritation into a major problem and someone who is normally a nicer person into a bit of a shrew. I think I need to get a rubber stamp for my forehead: "Caution! Cancer Survivor. Probably Exhausted and Potentially Grumpy." Either that or I just need to quit pushing so hard to live a normal life. I should just stay home more to rest. Which might work, if it weren't for those darned frappes!