Tenderness Follows

Tuesday, May 12, 2015 - 3:55pm
Photo by Behrouz Mehri

Tenderness Follows

As usual, the waiting room is full of people older than me — people grayer, sadder-looking, some with walkers, some in wheelchairs, most with companions. Ever since my last chemotherapy ten years ago, I try to arrive at this office looking less like a patient than a friendly visitor to a world I don’t belong to. I walk in fast, alone. I smile at the receptionist. I plop down on the couch and flip through magazines with a studied nonchalance. It’s prideful, this not wanting to be counted among the sick, but to anyone who’s spent half a year of her life with no hair, understandable.

The receptionist hands me a clipboard with a “Review of Symptoms” form. It’s a piece of paper that used to leave me with heart palpitations. Circling even a single YES to one of the 50 suspicious symptoms could mean the beginning of the end of my life. Today I skim it without thinking. I check NO to rectal bleeding, blurred vision, tremors, boils, black stool, excessive thirst, urine retention, wheezing, seizures, persistent itch.

Ten years of symptom-less living is a get-out-of-jail pass at this office, so today, my final check-up, should be a day of elation or at least relief. Instead I feel no more emotion than I do going to the dry cleaners. I had considered taking a celebratory selfie in front of the building. A selfie of me giving the finger to the Rose Cancer Center. But the sun was too bright and I didn’t feel vengeful or victorious. I just felt hurried.

Iranian breast cancer patient Farvah reads a book as she holds her medicines' basket while waiting for her chemotherapy at a clinic in Tehran.

(Behrouz Mehri / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

I get my blood drawn in the chilled lab room. I consider that lab technicians must be hired on the basis of their ability to converse cheerfully while poking strangers with needles. I’m glad, though: the needle inserted under the thin skin of the back of my hand really is unpleasant, and her chatter about what she’s making for dinner distracts me.

The check-up with Cindy, my favorite physician assistant, is also breezy and genial, just like our conversations when we see each other at the grocery store. Over the years she’s cultivated a friendliness that’s as valuable a tool as the stethoscope draped around her neck. Friendliness says everything is normal. You are not a sick person anymore.

She listens to my lungs and asks about my kids. I ask about hers as she presses her fingers into my abdomen looking for tumors. She feels my armpits, less sweaty than on previous visits, and fills me in on the latest breast cancer research. I listen with mild interest. For the last five years, most of the research has been irrelevant to me. I don’t even have questions for her anymore, except my annual one about how much alcohol it’s okay to drink. Depending on how I phrase the question, I can usually get the answer I want, and today I score again.

Iranian breast cancer patient Farvah shares a moment with her fiance Saleh on her way to the operation room before her mastectomy operation.

(Behrouz Mehri / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

Then she helps me off the examination bed, an unnecessary kindness. Of course, I’m still in a hospital gown, the costume of sick people everywhere. I suppose such gestures are protocol.

Now it’s time to say goodbye. She hugs me. It’s a warm hug, not a quick, superficial one. All the sudden, my chest pressed against hers, her arms patting my back, I realize what I’ve avoided thinking about all day. It’s over. Over. I am released, graduated, discharged, acquitted.

Things must be felt, must be said. It’s people like you, she’s telling me, but I don’t hear her finish. It’s as if my ears, too, are clogged with tears.

I wasn’t expecting this. The last time I cried over cancer was when I had to tell my husband about the call from the radiologist.

It’s not just that it’s over. I’m flooded with gratitude, gratitude for her goodness and her kind care these past ten years, her clear explanations of my risks and my options, her reassurances to my anxieties. Doctors came and went, but Cindy has been with me since my first visit to this office, a steady presence. She knows my history. She knew my old body, and now my new body, like no one else ever will.

I thank her for being my rock. My voice catches in a way I despise, cracking like a weepy bridesmaid toasting the bride. I don’t say all I’m feeling.

We’ll see each other in the grocery store, we say. Goodbye, goodbye.

I get dressed. Goodbye room. Goodbye gloom. Goodbye cold lab room. Goodbye syringes, goodbye needles, goodbye green rubber arm bands. Goodbye hallway that ends in the chemo wing that I try not to look down. Goodbye cheerful flower pictures. Goodbye mauve wallpaper. Goodbye billing desk. Goodbye appointment cards.

Iranian breast cancer patient Farvah puts on make-up in her house in Tehran, as she starts a normal life after finishing her cancer therapies.

(Behrouz Mehri / Agence France-Presse.)

The curly-haired clerk asks me when the doctor wants to see me again. I grin. "Never!" I say. At least that’s the plan, I add, not wanting to jinx myself. I wait for her to congratulate me. Instead she sighs. I hope I get there someday, she says. It’s just been one year for me.

She’s on the healthy side of the desk and I’m on the sick side, but she’s closer to cancer than I am. I know what’s ahead for her — the headaches that are really brain tumors, the backaches that are cancer cells in the spine, the phlegmy cough that signals metastasis in the lungs, the nine years of anxiety flare-ups that a mere hemorrhoid can provoke.

I wish she didn’t have to go through it. I wish I knew her well enough to take her curly head in my hands and tell her how far she’s come already, how beautiful she is, how much stronger she is than she knows. Instead I mumble reassurance, not so proud anymore of my health.

On my way out of the building I share the elevator with two people in wheelchairs: one, a frail-looking elderly white man, the other a young overweight African-American man. They are laughing together. They had just sat next to each other for their chemo infusions. Their laughter is so genuine; I wish for a moment — less than a second, really — that I had sat with them to share the joke. I want tell them that I’m one of them, one of the ones who knows what they know. I smile, but they don’t notice me.

Iranian breast cancer patient Farvah and her fiance Saleh try to wake up in the morning in their countryside house in a village near the Caspian Sea port city of Bandar Anzali, northern Iran.

(Behrouz Mehri / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

I walk into the sunshine and my heart begins to expand till I feel like I’m floating. I feel tender towards the nurse on break with her water bottle, tender towards the old woman being helped out of her car, the man not looking before he steps into the crosswalk. I want to take these people ever so gently in my arms and say, It’s people like you.

I let this mood wash over me like a sunbath. It’s familiar. I remember such moods from my first year post-treatment. I re-entered the healthy world and found it a marvel. I was alive. My hair grew back curly. Winter was snowy, spring was even more beautiful. The people who had been kind when I was sick were beautiful. So were the ones who weren’t. Any suffering I had undergone was nothing compared to what others went through. It was one of the happiest years of my life.

Everyone suffers, silently or obviously, one way or the other. Once you see that connection, tenderness follows.

I take a selfie after all, a smiling one. Goodbye to cancer. Mostly.

Iranian breast cancer patient Farvah smiles in the mirror as she dyes her hair in her house in Tehran, as she starts a normal life after finishing her cancer therapies.

(Behrouz Mehri / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)
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Maggie Lane

is a freelance writer and mother of four from Beverly Hills, Michigan. She blogs at Poemelf.com

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A lovely essay that speaks to the power of everyday kindness and compassion. Thank you.

Such amazing humanity. I'm humbled, a little ashamed, grateful.

Wonderful piece! So happy to see it here. Congratulations on this new chapter in your life and on getting this published.

Thank you for such thoughtful writing, while you speak of cancer this kind of care also works well with chronic illnesses. The doctor's office becomes a weird kind of extended family that you'd be happy never to see again.

"A weird kind of extended family"….is there any other kind?! You're exactly right!

Thank you, Maggie. The strength, humor, and self awareness of this piece speak to the lives of all who have suffered from cancer. Your smiling selfie is the perfect close.

Thank you! But just to clarify, the pictures you see are of an Iranian breast cancer patient, not me. I found them so moving.

Beautifully said....Approaching my sixth year of remission.......life is fuller and more wonderful than ever. And I am now a fearless and dangerous woman...honestly,what can be worse than radiation in your va---a?!
Sounds like you are at peace....praise God!!!

I feel your gratitude. Such a genuine and important perspective... the thanks for life just as it is and the support from those on the journey... Thanks for sharing!

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I agree, everyone suffers and I think some people forget that. Be kind to everyone as everyone is going through a struggle. Sometimes still waters run deep.

Thank you. You perfectly encapsulated what it feels like, even years later after treatments have ended, to be both grateful and humbled by the experience of cancer. Such a mix of emotions that is hard to convey. I appreciate that it was done so well.

Lovely.

Maggie - your sister is one of my nurses. I'm hoping I'll be able to express myself even half as beautifully as you did when I approach a major cancer milestone. Thank you for sharing your writing, and your awesome sister!

Thank you so much! Mary K. is an amazing nurse! I was so lucky when I went through treatment to have a loving expert like her to support me. Good luck with treatment and I can't wait to hear form Mary K. that you are all done!

Thank you for your story it's really great to hear from people who have beat the cancer. I'm currently going through having leukemia it was in remission once but only lasted a few months. I have three small children whose ages are 1, 4, and 7 my youngest is my miracle baby he went through the first round of leukemia with me and against all odds and doctors opinions that he wouldn't survive the chemotherapy treatments he did and is very healthy. I still have a long fight ahead of me but it's still always great to hear stories of people who have been in my shoes and have won so thank you very much for your story.

Thanks for this eloquently written,honest, and heartfelt piece. As someone who volunteers each week in a pediatric oncology playroom, I appreciate this joyful look at what it's like to put cancer behind you. It's my wish for every child I meet at the hospital.

Living through pain and suffering is like sitting by a murky pond. The mud is frustration, confused feelings, anger, denial, hurt of so many kinds that words just tumble out all in a tangled mess, like old paper clips forgotten in a drawer. And then through time, you learn to flow with the crazy current of unexpected unsuspected consecutive never to me moments... and as the water of resistance settles, all kinds of shiny things start to reveal themselves in the bottom, gems of compassion, humanity, empathy and yes, the very elusive tenderness and acceptance of being just another human being trying to figure out the puzzle of life.

This is marvelous. So many things are going against me right now, this was exatly what I needed. i go through the same sudden reassessment often, gratitude surfacing from the ocean of pain worry and fear. Thanks.

may we all be as grateful and cherish the gift of what it means to be truly human-kindness. Wish On Being provided a link to share these things on LinkedIn.

This is absolutely beautiful and accurate and so very well said. I, nine years out, had my "last" visit this winter - mainly because of a change in health insurance that made it too expensive to go to the doctor.... I didn't think much about what it meant to not go yearly. I appreciate that you were able to put it in such lovely words. I will continue to say what I always have, "It's gone unless it comes back."

Thank you for your story. Thanks for contributing this article showing very humble humanity!