We survivors possess many unique skills. Chief among them may be our ability to consciously deny our persistent, nagging fear of The Other Shoe Dropping. It’s essential, if we want to keep on living in any meaningful, joyful way.
Most people, at some point, likely entertain thoughts like this: “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Might as well live for the moment.”
As survivors, the bus has come and gone. We’ve been flattened. We’re peeling ourselves off the pavement, clawing and scraping our way forward, but we’re constantly looking over our shoulders, if only on the sly. We know that we have to keep moving, but fear fights to pull us back.
The specter of The Other Shoe Dropping, for me, becomes most vivid and terrifying in moments of profound bliss, usually apropos of nothing in particular. Recently, though, the fear took on a specificity I haven’t felt since the moment of my original diagnosis nearly five years ago.
My six-month check-ups with my oncologist have become yawningly routine at this point. Hello! How are you? You look fabulous. I’m sorry: my hands are really cold. Little bit of pressure…a lot of pressure. OK, you can sit up. We’ll have your test results within two weeks. Don’t forget to stop at the lab for your blood work on your way out. See you in six months.
No muss, no fuss. Invariably, within a few days, I get a call telling me that my CA125 is normal. In another few days, I get another call telling me my PAP test is negative. No matter how many times I get these calls, my heart always skips a bit when I see the hospital number on my phone, and a huge smile creeps across my face when I get the good news.
After my most recent check-up, at the end of June, the CA125 call came the very next day. Undetectable; normal. Words I never tire of hearing, and news I always happily share with my friends and family.
A week later, the second call came. As usual, it was my oncologist’s nurse. “Oh, hi,” she began, the same sunny tone as always present in her voice. “So, your PAP test showed some low-grade dysplasia, and Dr. Chu wants you to come in for a colposcopy, which I know you’ve had before…”
My mind racing, I immediately interrupted her. “Um, actually, no, I haven’t.” I flashed back to the hysterical conversations I had with this same nurse during treatment, as I begged and pleaded with her to please have my doctor prescribe me something for my plummeting mood. Something, please, to stop me from crying all day, every day.
“Oh well,” she continued. “It’s just an office procedure…take some Motrin…the doctor wants to take a closer look…maybe a biopsy if she sees anything of concern.”
I was holding my son in my arms; when the phone rang, I was about to put him down for a nap. As the nurse’s words rang through my head, my heart pounded. All I wanted to do was cling to Earl, shut my eyes and ears to all of this noise, and go back to the place of bliss where I was the moment before the call came.
Rationally, I should have been able to recognize the “ho-hum” tone in the nurse’s voice. Rationally, I should have been able to process the fact that my own sister has been dealing with a similar diagnosis on and off for several years, and is very much alive and well, happily raising her own child. Rationally, I should have recognized that the condition discovered in my PAP test is in no way part of the profile of the genetic mutation that I carry.
Instead, panic slowly seeped in. I went from “low-grade dysplasia” to my husband raising Earl as a single parent, with me dead in the ground, in a matter of seconds. I lay Earl down on our bed, and gazed at him, smiling as always, but feeling all of the peace and contentment I have finally come to know as a parent melting away, being replaced with the return of cancer, and the sound of The Other Shoe Dropping.
I’m a parent now. I cannot afford to stay for even a moment in this kind of hotbed of panic. Get it together, Emily, I told myself. I helped myself to a capsule of kava, and after speaking briefly to my husband (who took the news perfectly and appropriately in stride), contacted my sister. She did a wonderful job of honoring my concern while also assuring me that everything would be fine. She told me about the procedure, and her understanding of the findings. Wisely, she urged me to call my doctor and ask to speak to her directly, to allay any lingering concerns. I did just that, and it made all the difference.
The colposcopy is scheduled for the end of the month; in the mean time, we are about to celebrate the finalization of Earl’s adoption. I’m running and doing yoga with religious zeal. I’m stronger than ever, and happier than ever. I cannot even measure the magnitude of the joy that now burns so brightly from the very core of my being. I’ve survived the shock of getting my first-ever abnormal test results since completing my cancer treatment four years ago. Now, it’s back to the essential work of staying present in the magic of this moment.