Today was my 6 month checkup at the cancer center. I go twice a year to have blood work done and meet with my oncologist. It’s usually crowded at the cancer center, but Friday’s are always the worst. Today was no exception, there were already 12 people in the waiting room at 8:30 a.m.; 10 women, 2 men.
I do my usual surreptitious survey of the crowded waiting room. One woman is bald, wearing only a scarf around her head. There are at least 3 other women with wigs, they’re all with their husbands, or significant other. The rest have hair, so are either too early in the process to have lost their hair yet or are there, like myself, for post treatment checkups.
It’s kind of gruesome, I know, but it’s how I look at the waiting room, now. I mentally try to assess where the patients are in their process, remembering how scared I was when I came for my first appointment, then the strange calm I felt at my first chemo treatment, then how I became an old hand at it after 16 chemos as I came to know what to expect. Visiting the center always brings it all back, but I’m not afraid anymore.
Here’s how it is now, when I’m in what I consider to be “maintenance mode.”
I feel like a Senior in high school, who knows what to expect, who’s seasoned and knows what’s coming. Been there, done that. I know the drill, there’s nothing they can throw at me to surprise me after the 4 years I’ve been doing this (or so I delude myself into thinking).
I go in, check out the waiting room: are there any chairs left? I quickly assess the waiting line at the receptionist desk: which one looks like it will go fastest? I get my $20.00 copay out in advance, dismiss their receipt when they ask me if I want one. I’m an efficiency machine. Go to the cloakroom, check my coat as I know I’ll be here for a while, and don’t want to carry it around from room to room.
I find my chair in the crowded waiting room, knowing that since it’s so busy this morning, I’m not getting into the nursing station for blood work for at least another 20-30 minutes. I take out my phone, check emails, Facebook, Twitter.
After about 20 minutes, my name is called; it’s one of the nurses I know well, who used to do my blood work every chemo and now does my bi-annual blood work. We follow the same routine; I ask about her family, she asks how I’m feeling, how am I? She’s always hopeful, I’m sure they’re so glad when their patients are healthy. It must be hard to see people go through this day in and day out, many of whom get sicker and sicker at each visit.
She takes my vitals, temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and then asks me which arm she can use. I tell her not the left one as that’s where they removed lymph nodes. She ties my right arm off, I tell her where the scarring is and to avoid those spots, she finds a good vein that’s still in working order and quickly draws 2 vials of blood.
The nurses in the oncology center are really good; they can get a needle in with just a pinch and rarely have trouble finding a good vein, for which I’m very grateful. And, before I even left the house, I’ve already had at least 16 ounces of water as I know I need to be hyrdrated since they’ll be taking blood.
While I’m sitting there, I admire the walls covered with bucket list postcards from all the previous patients. Ireland, Italy, Paris, Bermuda, Spain, islands, resorts, all sorts of beautiful and exotic postcards cover the wall from patients. I realize I’ve never sent them any postcards from my bucket list trips (Paris, Santa Fe, The Grand Canyon, Cancun) and make a mental note to send them on my trips going forward.
My nurse returns with a report of good blood results and I’m off to an exam room to meet with my oncologist. The drill there is to take off your clothes from the waist up, put on a gown and sit patiently until he shows up, which he does in only about 5 minutes. He does a physical exam and asks how I’m doing, same fire drill: How are you feeling, how are you tolerating the Tamoxifen, have you changed any of your meds since last time, etc.
We exchange pleasantries about our families and what we’re doing for the holidays.
I ask him the $60MM dollar question that I always ask him, each visit. Would a cancer recurrence show up in any of these tests? Would my blood work show that it had spread if it has metastasized?
He gently reminds me that no, it won’t necessarily show up in my blood and that most likely they wouldn’t know about a recurrence unless I started to feel unwell or have vague symptoms like fatigue or achiness. (Which are also symptoms for just about every illness known to man, by the way, so you can imagine where my mind goes whenever I feel a twinge or ache.)
Which never sits well with me, because I know that by that time it would be far along, but it’s just the little dance the two of us do together. I try to get him to promise me that it won’t return, he tries to remind me that no one knows, but so far, so good.
And then that’s that. We’re done; I say goodbye, have a great holiday (he’s going to Florida with his wife, sounds fantastic) and get ready to dress so I can be on my merry way.
And for some strange reason, it makes me feel better to put this all down on paper. It soothes me to chronicle things, not sure what that says about me, but it’s always been this way for me, so I’ll just keep at it.