balance regained: an annual event

The unconscious weight that bears down before a visit to the oncologist is never fully felt until after it dissipates, and the lightness of relief sets in.

Recent weeks have been a time of intense, measured breathing, of looking for space and patience, and seeking new directions for myself, and our family. The joint challenges of life with a four-year old and an ailing parent are pressing hard on all sides, and maintaining balance has been a full-time job. Trying to set out on a new career path in the midst of these challenges has in some unexpected way helped me clear the space I need for myself, making the hard parts of parenting infinitesimally easier. Overall, it’s been a rich stew of newness, and I’ve felt a burgeoning internal strength.

There wasn’t much mental space to perseverate on my annual visit to the oncologist this morning, just the continued breathing and mindfulness that my steady diet of yoga and running has afforded. Eight years exactly now since I finished treatment; cancer is in so many ways a distant memory. Or so I sometimes think, until that moment when I walk into the exam room.

I was treated at Penn, but now see my oncologist at Fox Chase, where she moved several years ago, and I only see her once a year. The familiar faces who monitored me all through the first stages of my recovery are absent; the campus is massive, and every time I go, I get turned around, looking for the right parking lot, the right corridor to my doctor’s office. It is wholly disorienting.

Enter the fluctuations of the mind. By the time I sat down in the exam room with the medical assistant, the balance I pride myself on had evaporated. My blood-pressure reading confirmed it: “Your pressure is a little high,” the assistant noted, sweetly, with just a touch of concern. “Do you get anxious when you come in?”

“A little,” I offered sheepishly, feeling exposed.

She tried the other arm; a bit lower, but still high. She offered some other suggestions: a salty dinner last night? Coffee this morning? (Oh, goddamn you, coffee.) But it wasn’t anything external, just my body betraying those innermost thoughts and fears, buried so deep in a daily routine and a search for purpose and direction that is all-consuming. Until this annual moment creeps up on me.

While the assistant ran through information on the computer screen, verifying medications and supplements, I felt my eyes begin to well, as they often do when someone outside my own head acknowledges the storms within it. I wiped my eyes and breathed deeply. After the assistant provided me with a gown and drape sheet, she left the room, leaving me to regain my balance while I waited for my doctor.

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Gowned and draped, I sat on the exam table with my eyes closed, rested my hands on my knees, joining my thumb and index finger. I matched the length of my inhales and exhales. Stillness set it.

After a few moments, the familiar knock came. She appeared from behind the curtain, like the magician she is. We shook hands, and, rather than jumping right into the exam while making brief small talk, she pulled up a chair and sat down, smiling, and started asking me about my son. The lightness grew, the weight simultaneously lifting. We talked and smiled, chatted about the differences between boys and girls, running, how I am feeling. Her kindness and presence felt like an embrace. She finally ran through the usual series of questions, then called for the nurse to begin the exam.

I lay back, looking up at the ceiling, as I have a thousand times before, and felt with a powerful sense of relief how completely okay it is for me to still carry these emotions, no matter how deeply buried they may be. This essential, unforgettable thing happened to my body and my soul, and the repercussions are endless, though faint.

I sat up as my doctor washed her hands and rattled off a few final details about follow-up. Breath filled my body. “You look fabulous,” she said, and came in for a hug. A real hug, filled with feeling. I squeezed her back, just a little. “It’s always so good to see you,” I said.

In spite of it all, it truly is.

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