Cancer is a word, not a sentence.

I am driving in heavy traffic to Cedars Sinai Medical Center. It takes all my concentration to navigate the 405. This freeway is always clogged with crazy L.A. drivers. A lot of them think their destination is more important than anyone else’s. Talk about entitlement in action!

My appointment is at 9:45 and it’s already 9:10. I feel like I’m in a capsule creeping along a slow moving conveyer belt. My mouth is so dry I have to gulp down some water. I re-grip the steering wheel and notice that my palms are damp. My palms are never sweaty! I order myself to take a deep breath. RELAX, I say inside my head. BREATHE.

I know it’s not just the traffic that’s making me so anxious. I’ve been nervous for two days, but in an under-the-radar sort of way. I was edgy and impatient even if I didn’t show it to our grandkids who were visiting from Chicago. This personality transplant is nothing new. Well, not for five years anyway. It happens every time I have to go to Cedars.

I’ve tried to “get over it”—even went to a therapist to talk about it. It’s been five years since I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Logically I know I’m fine. I was lucky to have caught it early. Lucky to have a daughter I could confide my symptoms to—lucky that she listened and insisted I see a doctor. I remember thinking she was over reacting, but I made an appointment with my gynecologist, who did a biopsy that same day. The results showed early stage cancer. I share this with you in case you have the same symptoms. I consider myself intelligent and savvy, but I didn’t have the knowledge that this “period” was no laughing matter.

“You have no idea of how many women come to me too late,” my oncologist told me. “They’re too busy, or they think maybe they’re really not done with menopause or that the bleeding will stop.” She shook her head. “With you, surgery will get the job done. You won’t even need chemo. It could be this way with everyone if they just came in before the cancer spread.” She seemed so sad. I remember that clearly even though I was still shell-shocked by my diagnosis.

The surgery went really well. At my six-week check up, they explained there is no 100% certainty you are cured and will continue to be cancer free. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over is more the case. “While I feel certain we got all the cancer, that is not proof. So we’ll want to see you every two to three months for the first two years,” the oncologist explained. I liked the way she looked me in the eye. “Then every four months.”

Five years later, I’ve graduated to every six months. That is a good thing—Now I only put myself through this torture twice a year. I leave my house, a functioning person concerned about the economy and the coming elections, and I evolve into the woman who is afraid to trust her own body—a woman who’d had cancer.

Today, the bumper-to-bumper traffic ratchets up my anxiety so I get off the freeway at Sunset Boulevard. It’s a pretty street and I can relax for a moment as I wend my way towards Beverly Hills. But somehow, even though I have been driving this route for five years, I overshoot the Cancer Center once again. I’m lost and have to figure out how to get back to Beverly Boulevard. By the time I get to the parking lot, I have five minutes to check in for my appointment.

I go into the lobby and get in the elevator, my mood descending with it. It’s as if a time machine hurtles me back the five years. The fear and disbelief I felt back then reappear like spectral holographs, hemming me in. I start repeating the mantra my cousin told me, “Cancer is a word not a sentence,” but then I think, what does she know? She’s never had it.

I check in at reception, get my wristband and go to the waiting room. It’s filled with men, women and children who come and go as if they’re playing musical chairs. The teenager who’d come down in the elevator with me starts to pass out. His mother calls out for help and a white-coated man rushes to grab the kid before he hits the floor. This mustn’t be an unusual occurrence because no one pays much attention to it. Or maybe it’s because I’m a writer that I watch it all—the mother sagging against the wall for support, then straightening up to shuffle along side the wheel chair, her hand hovering over the boy’s shoulder.

I finally get called. I go into the examination room and the transformation is complete. I’m a cancer zombie, again. This sterile, cold room with its diagrams and cancered models of female parts is where I was given the diagnosis. That moment starts instant-replaying in my head.

It’s better when the young resident comes in. She asks me questions with a caring and attentive air. The doctor breezes in, trying to look like she doesn’t have a dozen patients waiting for her. As she examines me, she asks what book I am reading. We always talk books. When she finishes the exam, I sit up. She is pleased, finding everything healthy. “You’ll get the PAP smear results in a week,” she tells me. “I’m sure the results will be negative.”

Once I’m dressed, I walk to the elevator, keeping my eyes on the linoleum floor, not looking to the left or the right. It’s become a ritual of safe passage. I come out of the building and stand on the curb, waiting for my car. The warmth of the sun soothes me. I hadn’t realized how cold I was. My hands are like ice.

For some reason, tears fill my eyes. I really can’t tell you why.

2 responses to “Cancer is a word, not a sentence.

  1. A moving piece. As I read, my eyes grew moist …

  2. Kim Calvo Harlan

    I know exactly the feelings you describe. I’m almost 10 years out from my breast cancer diagnosis, but I still worry every time I have my Mammogram. You seem to always be holding your breath, hoping the “other shoe” doesn’t drop. Only others who have been in your shoes understand the worry and the constant internal question of “what if…” keep thinking good thoughts and always know I’m in your corner!
    Love you Kim

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