Waiting to Exhale

February 15, 2018

For the cancer patient, waiting seems an often too familiar state of being. In this article, one survivor shares her experience with periodic checkups and how they make her feel.

Taking a deep breath, I open the doors to the cancer treatment center and walk inside. In the corridor, pressed tightly against the hallway walls, I see men and women in various stages of cancer treatment. Some sit with their bald heads reflecting the overhead lights. Some sit shrouded in blankets or throws. Some hold tightly to the hands of loved ones. All of them hold the face of uncertainty and worry.

Today I'm here for my six-month check-up. It's hard to believe six months have gone by so quickly. It seems like yesterday I was here visiting my oncologist.

I remember my first visit to the cancer treatment center. Making the decision to leave my original oncologist had been difficult. He'd seemed to have lost interest in me after I refused to go the standard procedural route of post cancer adjuvant therapy. I'd done my homework and didn't feel an aromatase inhibitor was beneficial for me. After trying three and experiencing severe side effects, I'd decided to seek alternative options. My doctor did not support me. He was constantly pushing me to take the medication. At first, it wasn't evident he'd given up on me but when I began to see his lack of attention during my office visits, I put two and two together. I knew it was time to move on.

That was a very scary time. Deciding to leave the doctor who'd cared for me during the first two years of my cancer journey felt like having a safety net pulled out from under me. I didn't know where to begin, but knew this was a choice I'd made and now I had to live with it.

Our city hosts the Southeast Regional Cancer Treatment Center of America. The hospital had not existed when I found out I had cancer, so I couldn't seek treatment there at the time. Midway through my radiation therapy, it had finally opened for business. At that time, I'd had a fleeting thought, I knew if I ever had to face another round of cancer, that was the place I'd want to go for quality care.

The staff at the cancer treatment center made me feel very welcomed and they were interested in helping me obtain optimal health. I was so impressed with the difference in care I received there on the very first day that I realized my decision to switch doctors was a good one.

As I round the corner, I can see the Port/Cath Lab to my right. Timidly, I walk in. Approaching the receptionist's desk, I feel queasiness in the pit of my stomach. I give my name and sit down to wait.

Today I will be having blood drawn before seeing the oncologist. This has become a standard procedure on the each of my check-up visits. It's strange to think a few milliliters of blood can give an accurate picture of my health, but apparently it provides the doctor with vital information.

I watch and wait as one patient after another comes in. My eyes are transfixed on those with ports exposed. I am grateful I chose not to go through chemotherapy. My oncologist had wanted me to go that route, but after reading all of the negative and harmful side effects of chemo, I decided against it.

Now they're calling my name. It's time for my blood draw. In the lab, I remind the phlebotomist to use a butterfly needle. A butterfly needle is an extremely fine needle used for drawing blood on those with difficult veins. I also remind the technician she'll have to take the blood from my hand since I have lymphedema in both arms. This makes the blood draw more difficult and I brace for the painful stick that is coming.

After my tests are completed in the Port/Cath lab, I'm directed to another wing of the cancer treatment center. Here, I will meet with the oncologist.

The waiting room is filled with people. It makes me sad to know all of us have one thing in common. The tie that binds us together is cancer. These people, although I don't know their names or any details about them, feel like extended family. For some reason, they seem dearer to me at times than my own flesh and blood. They are the ones who get it. They are the ones who understand. They are the ones who share my hopes, dreams and fears.

It is not long before my name is called. Obediently, I follow the white-uniformed nurse into an exam room. And then I wait again. While I wait, I try to remember the long list of topics I want to discuss with the doctor. There are so many things tossing around in my mind. I pull out a slip of paper from my purse and begin to scribble notes. Some of the things I'm concerned about are the constant fatigue, my inability to sleep, continual back pain, the swelling in my upper arms and an unexplained pain deep in my left shin bone. After I've jotted down the topics for discussion, I fight against the urge to just crumble up the paper and toss it into the trash. I don't want the doctor to think I'm just looking for something to worry about.

A knock at the door signals the doctor is ready to come in. When she enters, she greets me with a happy hello. Sitting on her little rolling stool, she slides up to a small computer desk and begins to question me as she types. "How are you feeling? Have there been any changes since your last visit? What are your areas of concern today?" she asks. I answer each question as it comes. This goes on for about three or four minutes and then she begins the physical exam.

She listens to my heart and my lungs and then asks me disrobe. She looks closely at my chest and then moves in for an even closer look. Her fingers gently slide across my incision. Then she begins to palpate my chest area gradually works her way to my under arms. I know from past experience she is feeling for any significant swelling, new lumps or enlarged lymph nodes. While she works, she makes small talk to help put me at ease. I don't realize I'm clenching my fist until I look down at my hands. My knuckles are white.

"When was your last bone density scan," she asks.

"I don't remember," I reply.

Going back over to the computer she swiftly pecks out a few strokes on the keyboard. Pulling up my record, she sees it is time for another test. "We need to order this right away and we'll also need to do another PET scan," she says with an evident concern in her voice. Instead of cringing at the news, I've come to accept this is going to be part of my routine care for the rest of my life.

When the examination is complete, the doctor walks out and a scheduler comes in. We set up dates and times for the scans.

As I exit the oncology office, I realize, as I walk past a full waiting area, that I look normal. On the outside, I look normal. I don't have the typical signs of cancer. I have a full head of hair. I have no port. My skin is glowing and healthy looking. When I walk, my frame is not weakened. I walk with my head upright, shoulders back, with determination.

Finally, I reach the lobby and see the exit. Reaching out, I place my hand on the metal bar that opens the door to the parking lot. As I feel the cool metal beneath my skin, I release a long sigh. I have been waiting to exhale.

Heading to my car, I tell myself I've tucked another six-month checkup under my belt. Now comes more waiting. Until I have my scans and get those results, I can't breathe comfortably but on the way home, I tell myself it's okay to relax. I repeat a calming mantra, "Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out." Before I know it, I'm breathing without thinking about it and I'm almost home.

Life in the cancer world is so different from life outside the world of cancer. We count our breaths. We inhale deeply at times and sometimes we hold our breath, but most often it seems we find ourselves waiting to exhale.


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