One would think that when breast cancer patients approach the end of their treatment, anticipation and relief would buoy them.
For me, however, the cancer and the accompanying treatments, injections, exhaustion, nausea, terror, constipation, body aches, weight gain, blah, blah, blah, etc. – ALL while teaching school fulltime and keeping house and remembering to feed the cats – wore me down. I was going through the experience pretty much alone. My parents were dead, my brother lived thousands of miles away, and I had no husband or significant other whispering to me about an online article they'd read about how to treat breast cancer.
I spoke to my son Smith via Skype every morning. He was living in Dubai. Because of the time difference, that was just about the only time we were both awake, and one morning, I leaned over and pressed a motherly kiss on the screen.
"The camera, ma," he said. "If you kiss the screen, all I can see is the top of your bald head."
I love my son.
A HIGHER POWER?
Under those conditions, my friends had to be chauffeurs, note-takers, advocates, timekeepers, secretaries, comforters, cheerleaders, silent watchdogs, even fellow breast cancer patients. They carried notebooks and Ziploc baggies of Xanax, tins of chocolate cookies for the nurses, and tubes of ointment for my poor radiation-burned nipple. I remembered to bring nothing, not only because I had chemo brain (see previous blog on this unexpected — and unpleasant — condition), but also because I was still ok with dying.
I've never been much of a believer in prayer. I've always thought that God is going to do pretty much what He wants to. If He answered prayer, there would be no bereft survivors picking through the debris of those tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri; there wouldn't be any tornadoes except across empty prairies. There would be no stillborn babies, no horrific car accidents, no heart-breaking tragedies.
At the beginning of my treatment, after I buzzed my hair and people knew right away that I had cancer, complete strangers would offer to pray for me. "Don't bother," I wanted spit at them. "If God answered prayer, I wouldn't have cancer."
Luckily, I was with my friend Ginny when that happened, and she tore me away before I could finish.
Over time, I got to understand that shoving away help, no matter what form it took, would eat away at my insides and do me no good at all. I quit being angry, and I accepted people's offers to pray for me. They meant well – and besides perhaps one of their prayers, like a lone voice in the wilderness would find some ineffable Power that would help. This was what people meant by breast cancer care.
What did I know?
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU VENTURE OUT ALONE
One time I thought I could go to chemo alone. I was ashamed to ask one more person, one more time. I could be brave. I could do it. So I hopped in the car and headed out for Yale New Haven Hospital.
Once I reached New Haven, however, a mere 20 minutes from my house, I realized I had no idea which exit to take. I'd never driven there before. I was always nodding off in the passenger seat, mashing my face on the window, leaving smears of spit and tears like dogs do – only their smears are usually snot. Considering my state, maybe mine were, too.
I got the right exit, but once exiting, I was in the left lane and realized I had to take a right-hand turn. An 18-wheeler was rumbling and snarling in the right lane. I beeped my little pitiful Hyundai horn. I wiggled my fingers in his direction and made the universal signs for "I am a stupid moron and ended up in the wrong lane to make a right-hand turn and I will be your best friend forever if you will just let me turn in front of you because this is so important I may kill myself if you don't."
He gave me an understanding nod, looked around at the intersection, and gave me a quick double blast of his thundering air-horn.
I took that as an ok to turn in front of him, but I understood within seconds that I was wrong: he was warning me that there was a cop at 2 o'clock. When the siren wailed, the truck driver covered his face with his hands, and I got a ticket.
Weeping, I pointed ahead at the entrance to the chemo center. She dotted the i's on her little notepad. I pointed at my bald head. She handed me the ticket. "I was on my way to chemo," I blubbered.
"Should have said something." Like she couldn't have guessed from the bald head and the 20 yards to the hospital entrance. Cold-hearted cow. I rolled up the window, smashed my forehead against the steering wheel, and said real bad things about her.
ALL YOU NEED IS FRIENDS
This is all a preamble to the distress I felt when I needed yet another friend to chauffer me to yet another medical procedure. I felt that I had abused my friendships. They have waited in parking lots and waiting rooms. They've waited in hospital cafeterias, idling cars, coffee shops, and benches on the lawns of town parks. Bless their hearts.
I decided to call someone I had not called on before: Leslie. "Will you drive me to get my eye operated on?"
Leslie knew all about the cancer, but she didn't know about the glaucoma. "Of course I will." Pregnant pause. "Eye?"
Possible death and blindness were simply a part of my life now. I didn't really care about the treatment for either one; I just didn't want to be conscious. However, I had to be awake for Dr. Libre to stick a knife in my eye because my eye had to be OPEN to get at my eyeball.
This didn't mean I couldn't have the equivalent of millions of dollars of street drugs pumped into my system. There are different forms of "awake." I kept asking for more anesthesia; Dr. Libre kept telling the anesthesiologist to administer more, until finally, Dr. Libre said, "'More? How much are you used to? What are you taking? "
"Blanaxgh," I told him, and the whole ceiling was beautiful and white and the idea of being blind in one eye was not so bad.
Leslie came to get me after a two-hour operation, drove me home, and made sure I was safely in bed.
I decided I would throw a party to thank all my friends for getting me through everything, and then I passed out.
Up next: CHAPTER 10: The Wig Party
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