In my life these days, little provides as much relief as making it through an oncology follow-up appointment without any unwanted surprises. In case it is not clear from the context, an unwanted surprise in an oncological examination would be anything – which amazingly can take on an almost incalculable number of forms or manifestations – that suggests that my cancer is getting aggressive with me again. So it was yesterday that I found myself once again sitting in my oncologist’s waiting room, barely able to breathe hoping to make it through the examination without incident.
To set the stage, it may be helpful for the non-cancerites out there to have a sense of what a day of such an examination looks like. For starters, the day commences extra early as anxiety needs no alarm clock. It wrests me from my already unproductive semi-somnambulant state to get a head start on this day of supreme worrying. I fruitlessly try to force myself back into slumber, but attempting to put yourself to sleep when your mind decided some time before that it was ready for the day’s regimen of worst-case scenarios is merely an exercise in searching pointlessly for a cool spot on the pillow while alternating between covers on and off as you can’t decide if you are hot or cold or some of each, which results in weird contortionism such that the entire body be-sheeted except for one bent knee and an opposing upper arm. Finally, I give up and most reluctantly commence the conscious, waking part of the day.
Although my looks are the least of my concerns on this day – those who know me might ask how that is different from any other day – I do think it is best to go into the appointment clean-shaven. There are lymph nodes everywhere, any of which could be examined, so the last thing I want to do is inadvertently scratch or, more awkwardly, tickle my doctor with an untrimmed whisker. So I force myself to shave, but the thought has occurred to me that holding a blade next to one’s jugular while the hand in which such instrument is being wielded is twitching may not be the smartest thing to do.
I push on through the morning routine, even compelling myself to exercise by using the same lie I tell myself on any other day about exercise – I will feel better afterwards. (It’s not really a lie, but it’s more of a tepid truth. I’d give it two Pinocchios to put it in modern parlance.) Yet I am not sure the exercise is really warranted as my heartrate is already elevated, and I don’t need the calorie burn given my stomach’s overly clear attitude about food at this time, which I will avoid describing. Be thankful.
As the morning unfolds, I make no pretense about doing work. Lawyering is largely a cerebral activity, which undoubtedly contradicts what most people think about lawyers. But thinking about anything other than cancer for more than a five-minute stretch is virtually unattainable for me on this day. (By way of comparison, on a non-appointment post-chemo therapy, I have been known to go as long as two hours without having a thought about cancer, three if I have been drinking but not too much because, after all, alcohol is a depressant.) Thus I attempt to further while away the time by taking Casey to the dog park. A dog park is actually a good place to be simultaneously with others and alone (like living in New York City) – one can be social, but there are so many people at the dog park that are only able to interact with dogs that if one stands off to the side, the overly talkative humans there will get the message and steer clear. Usually.
Finally, having exhausted herself, Casey is ready to leave and, for better or worse, I now must get ready for the half-hour drive to the appointment. I drop her off, pet her an extra time – more for me than for her but since she can’t read she will never know that I did it out of self-interest – and start the lonely drive to the doctor. Typically, I do not mind being alone, especially while driving. I am of the latch-key generation, so being alone is what we do best. I could turn on the radio, but I am usually so uncomfortable at this point that nothing has any appeal. Every song, whether it is its harmony or melody or both, rubs me wrong. And talk radio? Even if I cared about what they were saying there is no way I could concentrate on it. So I just sit there and drive.
At last I arrive at the doctor’s building, which is more aptly described as a portion of a medical compound. Business must be booming as over the five-plus years I have been going there the parking has become more and more challenging. They do offer free valet, but does anyone really like to ever valet one’s car? I hate it. Not to sound cheap about it, but I never have any singles on me and so then there is an unnecessarily uncomfortable moment where I just have to take the car with a non-pecuniary “Thank you,” which leaves everyone feeling sort of used. Plus, fundamentally, valet parking is just un-American. We love our cars because of the freedom they give us. If I give that freedom to someone else, particularly when all I want to do is get out of there – which I always do after non-stop cancer talk, it defeats the purpose. I might as well take a bus, which would really be un-American of me.
Having finally discovered a parking spot in the aisle as far away from the building as possible, I walk breathlessly to the office. I check in, exchange pleasantries with the receptionists (all of whom know me too well, yet still call me “Mr.”, which just adds to the premature aging that cancer causes) and then wait. It was during one such waiting period that I realized that I can go a full 28 minutes without breathing, and that includes the time it takes to withdraw vials of my tainted blood. At long, long last, the PA hails me back – more pleasantries but still no breathing – and I immediately scan her person to see if she is carrying a sheet of regular copier paper but that ironically has my mortality laser-printed on it. She does! What, pray tell, do the numbers say? “They are good,” she says, but in a way in which there might be an implied “but” coming. “Good or very good?” I demand with anxiety at a level that I cannot even begin to process. “Very good,” she says. Someone should suggest to these people that adverbs are good – very good.