Here I am yet again. My current “watch and wait” period to see how my cancer has been behaving – or not – since my last visit is now at its conclusion. The three months since last I saw my oncologist has flown by, and now I find myself mere hours away from the latest round of tests, indescribable anxiety and general unpleasantness for anyone unlucky enough to come within my ambit.
Although I did say immediately above that the anxiety with which I approach tomorrow’s visit defies description, it would make for a rather drab blog – not to mention a quite short posting – if I did not try to at least put some words to what this is like. Yet words drawn from our vernacular are not really, in my view, appropriate for defining something that is fortunately far from the everyday experience. Consequently, to appropriately try and articulate this level of anxiety, I have to reach deep into the thesaurus (which, for those reading this who were born after 1995, is a book of synonyms, which, for those reading this who were born after 1995, means words with similar meanings) for something that even comes close to fitting the bill. After having done some digging (and, to be honest about it, dusting as no one uses the thesaurus anymore – just as no one uses an encyclopedia or a dictionary or an atlas or any other tome that was properly shelved in a section entitled “Reference” of an erstwhile facility known as a library), I think the best I can come up with for today is apogee. I shall use it in a sentence: My anxiety level, which is always at an extreme whenever I think about having cancer, is at its apogee as my all-important oncology appointment is less than 24-hours away.
I have, unfortunately, reached the apogee of my anxiety many times before. Part of this is attributable to text anxiety. Just like any test one ever took, there is a certain degree of apprehension beforehand, a flurry of activity during the exam itself and then the near-intolerable waiting to find out how one did. Whether it’s the SAT (which, given my newly enhanced vocabulary displayed above, I am contemplating retaking) or a blood draw, a test is a test and it is never fun. To make matters worse, these tests are really standardized test – there is no essay portion of the bloodwork labs. About the only way one can get partial credit is by volunteering to have extra blood taken for research purposes. It doesn’t change whether one passes or fails, but it tends to make the lab techs happier and since they are doing the grading perhaps they can find one or two fewer useless lymphocytes on the test answer.
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There is a shockingly large amount of testing that goes on with cancer. My blood is routinely being probed for all sorts of things, most of which I had never heard of and, to be honest, I would have preferred to keep it that way. One also needs a decoder ring to understand the test results as there are more abbreviations than I could possibly ever guess as to their meanings. There is WBC, RBC, HGB, HCT, MCV and MCH, just to name a few. It sounds like an amalgamation of car models, foreign banks, boxing circuits and television shopping networks that no one watches. Then there are still others that have number signs (again, for the younger readers, that is what you call a hashtag) and all sorts of percentage symbols. To make matters even more unnecessarily complicated, all of this is wrapped up in a neat, not-so-little report entitled CBC. CBC? I thought CBC was the group of good people that brought us Delancey Jr. High. (On a related note, was it Delancey Jr. High or Delancey High where the one guy always strangely wore a fedora?)
And just like that period of pure terror when one goes to the mailbox to find an envelope with her SAT scores but before she can get it open, each visit to the oncologist is a similar repeat where my breathing comes to an absolute halt. I nervously await the handing over of the print out of the unintelligible abbreviations and numeric values to see what my future holds. Time typically slows down at this point, so while it takes an eternity for the PA to walk across the room to where I am perched in paralysis, I try to read the facial expression of this bearer of news to see what tidings she brings. Some PAs spare me this last bit of torture by exclaiming the results the second they open the door to the examination room, which is probably some form of a HIPAA violation but I will let it go (as long as the results are positive). Other times, particularly with rookie PAs – and I have broken in a few of them – they are not self-confident enough to tell me the results. In those instances I am forced to snatch the labs from her slow-moving hands so I can read the one or two numbers I have been trained to interpret. And then, hopefully, I can breathe.
Of course, there have been many times when those numbers were disappointing. There is no real salve for that – just a reluctant acceptance that bad things are on the horizon and the knowledge that the uncertainty will continue unabated. And even if the numbers are good, one must still make it through the physical examination – the lymph node checks to make sure that the bloodwork is not fake news.
All of this is then followed by what, in some ways, is the hardest part of all: Asking the question that I simultaneously do and do not want answered: Well, doctor, how am I doing? Of course, we all know that is just a watered-down version of: Am I dying? But asking straight out about one’s mortality is a toughie. No one likes the question, and I am always afraid of the answer. If the test results are bad, I will often feel compelled to pile on to my misery and ask about the prognosis. But, if the results are acceptable, I don’t ask anything – I just thank my lucky stars, make an appointment for three months down the road and then do my best to forget about it all for as long as possible. Maybe I will even go home and relax and try and catch a re-run of Degrassi: The Next Years.