What Can Happen if You Let Your Guard Down to Cancer


A woman describes the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which flipped her life upside down.

Because I’d just turned 40, and because I was a good girl who did what she was told, and because my dad had died young of a cancer that we didn’t even know the name of, I went.

Because it was supposed to turn out OK — that’s why I was doing it, to find out I was OK — and because the lady had said not to worry if I got called back, I — for once — did not worry, not that day nor the day they called me back. Which would always astound me when I recalled it later, since for as long as I could remember I had worried all the time and about everything, most especially about dying and leaving my kids without a mother, knowing as I did what could happen.

But because when they called, I was busy deciding which puff pastry hors d’oeuvres I should serve at my Christmas party, and was not in the least bit worried, they’d had to call a second time, which would always amaze me when I recalled it later. Because I was a good girl who did what she was told, sure, but also because you would think I’d have noticed that they kept calling me to come back, and that no one had said — not lately, anyway — not to worry, or that everything was OK. Not to mention because my dad had died young of a cancer we didn’t even know the name of.

And because it is always heartbreaking to remember the last moments of ordinary time spent doing ordinary things — like driving to the place on a bright January afternoon in the minivan with stale French fries and melted crayons in its crevices and reading random magazine articles while half-listening for your name to be called — I will always feel a little sorry for the girl who sat in the waiting room that day, who did not even see it coming. And because I had never before heard of the pretty Alaskan governor in the magazine article, her name would always remind me of that wait, of that waiting room, and make me want to wave my arms wildly and warn the girl to “Stop reading!” and “Pay attention!” for “There is terrible danger ahead!”

Because I was so certain that everything would turn out OK, and because my daughter, who was only four, needed to be picked up from preschool, I — for once — did not follow directions, which were to not get dressed quite yet, to wait until the doctor had read the test. Instead, I pulled on my sweater and waited for them to come back and say that everything was OK, that I could go.

But because this is exactly the sort of thing that can happen if you are not very good, or you let your guard down, if you forget to worry, or do not follow directions, a lady — not the same lady who had told me not to worry — came back and said that I would need to take my top off again, that the doctor would like to talk to me. That I needed a different test with a scary name that I remembered from when my dad was sick with the cancer we didn’t even know the name of.

And because this was not going at all as I had planned, because now there was no way I was going to make it to preschool in time, I called my friend, who said of course she’d pick up my girl, and then asked very gently why I was still at the place, since it had been so long, and was everything OK.

And because that was the moment that it all became real, I would never again not recall the questions she asked me, nor the barrage of questions I asked myself, like what in the world did I think was happening this whole time, and how could I have been so careless to forget — even just this one time — what could happen? Nor would I ever forget the ones I asked the doctor as we gazed at misplaced, malevolent stars in a hazy Milky Way, like could she please make sure I did not die young of this cancer and would it help if — this time — we both knew its name.

Because my daughter’s name was Libby, and she was only four.

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