Yesterday I got a dose of reality. In 2012 I had surgery for colon cancer. I was so lucky that when they did my surgery they were able to remove the entire mass and it had not spread anywhere else. The doctors think the tumor had been there for 5-7 years and had probably been cancerous for at least 2 of those years. I did not have to go through chemotherapy. I did not have to endure radiation. I did not have to take medicine with side effects. Everybody was happy: the surgeon, the oncologist, the general practitioner, my husband and family and me; I was ecstatic!
Once you are diagnosed with cancer, there is always the possibility that it will return, either in its original form or in some other place in the system. So, for the first year after my surgery I met with an oncologist every three months and had blood tests done to look for "cancer markers." There were none. The first year spiraled into the second. Still no markers present. This year, I have only had to see the oncologist every 4 months. He tells me that if I can survive this year as is, I will be able to reduce the visits to every 6 months. Where they will stay until my 5 year mark (at which time they feel you are in remission; not cured, mind you, but in remission.) I don't know when they consider you "cured": 10 years? 20 years?
In the two years I have been going to this doctor, I have always had good office visits. My tests have been clean, the office staff is a little aloof but efficient and pleasant (I think this is a defense mechanism. I'm sure they quickly figure out that to become too attached, or even personal, with a patient in their office, very often means a heartbreak down the road. Sadly, it is the nature of the disease. I can't fault them for this.) The oncologist is warm and caring and interested in what I have to say and does his best to answer all my questions truthfully. So, why is there a pit in my stomach before every visit?
Because there is always the possibility that, this visit, I will get the news that something is just not right. Your world hangs motionless for a moment, and then all the questions come flooding into your brain so quickly, like they did when I was first diagnosed, that you basically just sit there and stare, with this spaghetti of thoughts. Luckily the doctors always have a plan (not their first rodeo) and they continue talking, giving you plans and options and slowly, ever so slowly, you come back to reality enough so that you can answer their questions, and by the time you leave the office, your brain has kicked into high gear and is already dealing with the ancillary of related topics: work, family, logistics, side effects, where will I search on the Internet to get information, and most importantly - how fast can I get home and cry?
A simple walk to the bathroom in the oncologist office takes one past the chemotherapy rooms. And all these thoughts embark on their hopefully, fruitless journey. And the hollow feeling in my stomach lurches awake. I don't look at these people; it would be rude. But I know there is a room full of people and nurses and equipment. And I think: There, but for the grace of God go I.
And when the visit is over, I sit in my car for a minute and try to think of the groceries I need to get before I go home. But it doesn't work. I close my eyes for a minute and let the feeling of gratitude wash over me.