I realized just now that I have been dancing with fear lately. And not gracefully either.
It’s like each day, fear comes up to me, taps me on the shoulder and asks me to have a go of it. Not as if I have a choice, I stand up and bow. We proceed to tango, and I try to keep up. Eventually, inevitably, the music grows violent, and I’m getting thrown all around. Finally, the music ends, and I’ve survived. Only I know that my dance partner is waiting for me to catch my breath and have another go at it.
Sometimes the invitation to dance comes to me in my dreams. Sometimes it’s so subtle, I hardly even know that I’m spinning and twirling. I wake up, thinking I’ve had a good dream, except I’m left wondering why I feel so awful. And then I realize that the good dream was merely a mask for a wish to be freed from the fear. When it’s an overtly bad dream, at least I know what to call it.
I know what I’m fearing. If I say it outright, there are those out there reading this who will cringe, I am sure. If I say it…well, that’s the thing, I don’t think I can.
The fear starts building about twice a year, around the time I have to pay a visit to Dr. H, my oncologist. I start having formless anxiety, fueled by odd dreams, like this particularly haunting one in which I was being courted by a man who in reality, lives on in memory alone. He left a wife and three children when he passed away more than two years ago of a virulent form of cancer – one that originated in the bile ducts. I went to college with him and his wife, but I didn’t know either of them well.
Why would a married woman dream such a dream about this man? Well, here’s a clue: in the dream, he was past his cancer. He had survived it. And he didn’t want to talk about it or be reminded of it. After much thought and analysis, I came to realize that this was my wish for him and for me. That cancer would be in the past, and that nothing would remind me of it. The man in my dream was a safe messenger, to whom I gave an alternate ending, one which served my purpose.
Trouble was that the dream haunted me all day, and this was already a week ago, and I am still reminded of it.
Sometimes there is no cancer in my life at all. Sometimes, the wish to have cancer be a thing of the past is realized. But then the oncologist appointment draws closer, and I am reminded. And I cling to the life that I have built for myself post-cancer. I cling to it jealously, all of it: the long, thick hair, the fit yoga body, the tiny clothes I could never wear when I was pumped with steroids, the energy level that would be impossible if I were ill or on chemo, the relatively illness-free life that my children are perceiving is the norm. And I feel incredible RAGE that I have to have that joyous, super-vive, life be interrupted by a visit to a doctor, who holds my fate in her hands.
Not really, of course. But the child in my mind feels that this is so.
So, last night, I had a dream that I was flying to, of all places, Prague. Naturally, Prague is not “of all places”, however. It is significant in that it is the home of my former nanny, Tereza, who nursed me and my entire family back to health the year that I was chemotherapized. She was ready to go home to Prague when I was diagnosed, but like a modern day Mary Poppins with a belly ring, Tereza stayed with us until she determined, correctly, that she was no longer integral to my family’s survival. We said goodbye to her one spring day in lower Manhattan, near the Hudson River. I could almost see the umbrella which floated her back to her life in Prague. My older son woke up that night crying that he would miss her. We all would. I didn’t tell him not to cry. I told him that it was okay to be sad, but that the sadness would pass, and one day he would be able to enjoy remembering her without being so sad.
The idea was that moods are fleeting. Feelings are fleeting. Thus, they are okay. We can ride them. Why can I not take my own advice?
Anyway, back to the dream. I was heading off to the airport, and when it was too late to turn back, I realized that I had left my pills at home. I really do take pills each day still to help prevent the cancer from coming back. Even after 15 months of chemo (six months of which included the “hard stuff’, the “red death”, as some call it, the stuff that takes away your beauty and your energy and your will to live your life, even as you wish not to die), it has been nearly five years of continuous pill-taking, and there has always been a promise that at the end of five years of pill-taking, I would be invited to stop. At my last visit to Dr. H, however, a terrible betrayal occurred. She told me that studies are beginning to indicate that the pill is helpful even PAST five years. As in, indefinitely. As in, we have no idea how long we might want you to take this pill, but maybe forever.
It’s not the worst pill in the world. It does cause bone loss, for which I have had to take yet ANOTHER drug, this one intravenously, in the chemo room, and which drug leaves me loguey for a month. The last time I took it was…one guess? Last year right around now. It also causes joint pain in most women. I seem to have escaped that one, possibly because of the yoga, possibly because I take Advil so regularly that I wouldn’t notice the joint pain.
Anyway, I have been quite compliant with regard to this pill, never missing my dose by more than a few hours. But I am starting to get anxious. Do I continue or do I not continue? Isn’t five years of taking this pill enough? Or maybe it isn’t. This is confusing and feels like an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Or like Odyseus between the Scylla and Charybdis. So, naturally, I have oppositional dreams in which I forget to bring my pills with me on a European vacation but then call my oncologist in near hysterics. Passive agressive much?
In the dream, my doctor tells me, “Anything you need, just say it, and I will get it for you.”
Therein lies the rub.
What I really need is to have never met her. But, well, bygones. So, given the impossibility of rewriting the past, what I really need is to never see her again. Of course, that too goes against the impossibility of rewriting the past. So, I am stuck.
And I wake up from these dreams, these vague, indirect dreams, feeling thrashed to bits.
And then I receive a letter in the mail from the New York Presbyterian Mammography Center, reminding me that it is time for my six-month follow-up to my breast ultrasound. Excuse me? My WHAT? I don’t even HAVE breasts. Then I remember something I had very very very much wanted to forget, which is that the last time I saw Dr. H, she alarmed me by identifying a lymph node, rubbery and healthy-seeming, that she hadn’t noticed before, in the pit of my left arm. Not the cancer side. The cancer side has no lymph nodes left, so she couldn’t even compare one armpit to the other.
Breast cancer that recurs usually recurs on the same side on which the cancer first appeared, and it usually involves palpable lymph nodes at the collarbone. Or so I am told. “But let’s just look at this on ultrasound to be safe. ” I wrote about this when it happened. I don’t feel like linking back to it, but feel free to search in October of 2007. The ultrasound revealed, THANK YOU GOD, a normal lymph node, normal in every way, shape, size, consistency, blah blah blah. Goodbye, Lauren, have a nice life, congratulations, this was nothing more than a false alarm for you (for us, there was no alarm, but we understand how it felt for you).
So, then what the FUCK gives with this letter from them? Why the need for a follow-up? Of course, the letter indicates that they also believe that I still have breasts. And I also received a call from my older son’s former orthodontist in NYC, telling us that it is time for Brian to get an adjustmnt to his braces. Brian has no braces.
These administrators who send out these letters, they don’t know what they’re doing from a substantive standpoint, I understand that. But still, it all comes down to this: There is always a chance, there is always a risk, there is always a test that I could take, and there is always a result to be feared. And it’s not the fault of the office assistant at New York Presbyterian. And it’s not Dr. H’s fault. And the end result is not going to be different whether I get a stupid-ass letter or not.
Come April, I am going to have to march myself into see Dr. H and make small talk as she palpates my body and talks in one ear and out my other about aromatase inhibitors taken for an additional five years while I contemplate whether I should ask her if I need to take an infuson of that disgusting bone-building drug, knowing that I will HAVE to if she doesn’t mention it to me first, and that all of this is to prevent something even worse happening to me, something that I cannot even mention by name.
And this is why I am more chaotic than Britney Spears right now. Perhaps I should move up the visit to get it over with. If I am already at this high level of angst, I can only imagine what it might be within a few weeks.
Is it possible to let go of fear? Is it? If so, how? I do my yoga. I meditate. But reality can be a slap in the face. Even a relatively delightful reality like mine. It’s the clinging. The attachment to the way things are right now. How do I let go of that and of the fear that it will all be taken from me?