a normal life, Breast Cancer Treatment, Cancer 101, Culture of Cancer, identity, lymph nodes, lymphedema, Memoir, nuclear medicine, P.F. Chang Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, Recovery, resume normal activity, return to work, Returning to work, Sentinel Node Biopsy, the woman I used to be, Treatment
Only 47 days ago, a lifetime ago, my husband drove me to the hospital for the final pre-op surgical procedure: the nuclear medicine for a sentinel node biopsy which would be performed the next day at some point between the removal and reconstruction of my right breast. Just a thirty minute drive, this was enough time for me to participate, by phone, in an important meeting at work. Doing so brought to mind how I had worked right up until the day before I’d given birth to our daughter 14 years ago. Perhaps work was, and is, a way to stay distracted until the very last moment, when the pain invariably comes. How I dread pain. The specious pre-op procedure was explained by a simple “X” next to “Nuclear medicine” on the Surgery Scheduling Information sheet I had carefully filed in the Cancer 101 notebook which is never too far away. I know my surgeon had probably discussed the procedure with me and even answered all my questions, but even at this late hour, I still had not moved much further beyond “You. Have. Cancer.” handed to me on November 11th. Thus, I showed up. Obedient and vaguely prepared with my paperwork and an understanding that this nuclear medicine, a blue dye, would help my surgeon see if any cancer had crept into the lymph nodes. If so, she would remove them all.
Perfect timing. I finished the conference call that was not as important as cancer right when my husband pulled into the hospital parking lot, and after the obligatory mix-up with the out-patient registration department, we made our way to an entry marked Nuclear Medicine. I remember wondering how many people had preceded me. Within no time, I was once again supine, in a darkened room, on an exam table. The nurse was cheery and kind, excited to have completed the P.F. Chang Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon that weekend, so we bonded briefly about running. Then she told me she had undergone this very procedure herself and that I would do just fine. It would be over before I knew it. I was encouraged, blissfully ignorant that she had omitted the fact that said procedure would involve three injections of radioactive dye directly in and around the nipple of my right breast. I wince, even now, as I write about it. But more than the sting of those injections, what has remained with me is the kindness of the radiologist right before he administered them:
I am so sorry you’re here.
– and he said my name as he looked right into my eyes.
I do not remember the radiologist’s name. I may never see him again in my life, but his acknowledgement of the trek I was about to begin across cancer country, and his genuine sadness to see yet another person begin it, was one of the finer expressions of humanity I have encountered in recent months. I even forgive him for not offering me more of the numbing medication.
So here I sit, 47 days later, wondering what to wear tomorrow, given my own “unseasonable warmth” and the fact that it will be 83 degrees tomorrow in Phoenix. Wondering if the plants in my office are still alive. Wondering how many unanswered emails are in my inbox. Wondering how many voicemails await me, even though their urgency has diminished over the past six weeks. Wondering what happened to the woman who never had a reason to google nuclear medicine or sentinel node biopsies, the woman who never had cause to utter the phrase “possibility of progression.” Wondering. Worrying. Because tomorrow after an appointment with my surgeon, I will return to work. Return to work. Resume normal activity. This cancer has rocked my world from the inside out. Normal now does not simply continue from normal then. Someone who looks like me will pick up where she left off. What happened to her?
Did that woman – the one I used to be – disappear?