It’s that time of year again, when the sight of the leaves, turned shades of gold and red and brown, and the smell of apples and pine cones and frost in the air bring me right back to a time six years ago, I was spending an awful lot of time sitting in a reclining chair on the 9th floor of the Atchley Pavillion, staring across the Hudson at the breathtaking foliage, needle in my arm infusing Cosmopolitan-red and urine-yellow potions into my veins, poison that held the vague promise of killing the cancer cells that might or might not have been plotting a mutiny on the mother ship that was my body.
It’s a lovely place here. Truly spectacular in the fall. And I am thrilled to come here with hair that cascades past my neck and the dark, mascaraed fringe around my eyes and tiny little clothes that fit me just so. It’s a thrill to be able to be here at all, but it’s especially sweet to be here in what appears to be full, robust health.
I used to come here in my pajamas. Or what had become my pajamas. Stretchy pants, sweatshirts, I slept in them, i stayed in them all day as I melted into the living room sofa, my lifeline to the world being my laptop and my childrens’ nanny.
When I come here, I’m reminded. When I come here I’m vulnerable. History could repeat itself. And the next time, it becomes a lifelong battle, rather than a battle followed by an uneasy cold war.
Today the women in the waiting room are chatty. Mary, whom I would guess to be about sixty, sits across from me, a porta-cath tape peeking out of her blouse. She’s enjoying an apricot tart that the women in the “support room” gave her. She sees me admiring the pastry and offers me a piece, which I decline. She asks me if I am new. I tell her I am old. Six years “old”. She seems happy to hear that and wants to know how many lymph nodes I had at diagnosis.
She soon learns that our cases are very different. She had tumors in both breasts and mets to the central lymph node in the chest. Although the cancer was not visible in any organs, she was still considered stage IV. Uncurable. Treatable. It’s been two years now. She takes Herceptin, like I did. We smile as we talk about how lucky we are to have been Her2Neu positive, making us eligible to take Herceptin.
A much older woman is wheeled in by what appears to be her caregiver. She joins in the conversation, as does a woman of about my age with greyish dark hair that looks to be newly sprouted. I guess her to be less than a year out of diagnosis, and she confirms. The much older woman is here for her first and maybe only visit with Dr. H: she is 83, had a lumpectomy that revealed a low grade, non-spreading type of breast cancer. Chemo is probably neither necessary nor a desirable option at her age, 83. Her name turns out to be Mary too.
The younger woman begins asking me about nutrition and lifestyle. She asks me what I like to eat for lunch. I ask her why that particular question. She expresses concern over nitrates in luncheon meats. I tell her that I don’t eat meat anymore and that my favorite lunch is peanut butter and banana on whole wheat bread. She gets called in, and I give her my email address if she wants to ask me more questions.
Now it’s my turn. I undress and wait for Dr. H in the examining room. She asks me if there’s anything new. She always puts it that way. I tell her everything’s fine. When her back is turned, I say, “But there is ONE thing….”
Dr. H spins around. Her face is shattered. She doesn’t even seem to try to hide it. I must have really taken her by surprise. I had no idea.
“It’s NOTHING!” I assure her.
Writing that makes me laugh.
“It’s just that I think I’m developing osteo-arthritis in a couple of fingers.”
We laugh. We talk about my knuckles. She examines me, and all is well.
But a thin pervasive terror hangs in the air just the same, and even as I walk out into the lobby once again, her expression, the look on her face as she turned to hear what I had to say in that instant of misapprehension: it is something that cannot be erased.