Strength in Simple Words

Last week I went in for my annual mammogram, and the technologist recognized me instantly. “How old is your little guy now?”

“He’ll be two on Sunday,” I said, surprising myself by how quickly time had passed.

“Already?!” She couldn’t believe it either.

At my very first mammogram, she’d met my son, who had only been eight days old at the time. I hadn’t planned to bring a newborn to a mammogram appointment, but the schedulers had unexpectedly fit me in just minutes after my second appointment with my oncologist, and I had brought my husband and Corey to that appointment, because it would determine my fate (it was where Dr. B. read me my CT/PET results, issuing some of the best words I have heard from him: “this is curable” and some of the toughest ones: “you will need chemotherapy”). At the end of that appointment, he’d let me know we still needed to do a mammogram and MRI to confirm this plan. We stood in the corridor at the scheduler’s office, who told us they had an opening in five minutes. I had looked out the window at the rapidly falling snow, then back at my husband and our tiny baby bundled in the carrier. “Well, you need to have it done,” my husband had stated simply, always going with the flow. “Where do we go?”

At this most recent visit, the technologist asked how I was doing now, about two years after we first met.

“I’m good. In remission.”

“That’s so good to hear!”

She introduced a little of my wild story to the woman beside her, whom she was training, then moved me through the usual process, instructing me to remove my right arm from the sleeve of the pink, hip-length hospital gown that covered my torso, and placing my body just so.

 “Breathe in…and hold…”

 The machine beeped, and she carefully adjusted me to another angle.

She instructed the other woman to go on without her, and she walked me back to the changing room alone. “I’m so happy that you’re doing well.”

 “Thank you. It’s definitely been a long process.”

 “I was thinking about you the other day,” she said, surprising me. “My husband was first diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2020, as well, in March.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “Just when things were getting…weird.” I kept my tone lighthearted; there was no need to dive too deeply into March of 2020.

 She nodded. “I’m sure you were in the thick of that, too.”

“Yes. I was right in the middle of chemo when everything shut down and I suddenly had to go it alone.”

“I know what you mean. I finally got to go to one of his appointments with him, just recently. Other than that, I haven’t been able to be with him through most of this. It was– actually, he’s had a recurrence, and they had to do surgery again.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said. “I hope he is okay.”

She was one of the few medical staff that I met just a couple months before everyone in the clinic was covered in masks, gloves, and goggles. There are some physicians and other hospital staff that I went through months of cancer treatment beside without every really seeing their face (which is something bizarre possibly worth unpacking another time). From what I could see of her behind her large mask and thick glasses, I could tell that she was on the verge of tears. I wanted to say something to help her. There are times, now, when I feel this twinge, like I need to say something wise because of what I’ve been through. As if undergoing chemotherapy during a pandemic imbues you with some vital wisdom unknown to the rest of the population.

“It sounds strange,” I began, “but something that has soothed my anxiety through cancer is knowing that none of us is guaranteed tomorrow. We just have to do the best we can each day.”

Corey and me the day after he was born (about a week before my first mammogram).

“That’s true,” she nodded, patting my arm. “Thank you. I do like talking to you.”

“Well, I’ll be stopping by here every year now, so…”

We both laughed. We exchanged a few more words before she left the room. I wondered if I had said the right thing at that point in our conversation. I often have a tough time saying what I want to in the moment: the right words will pop up later, on the drive home, or in the shower, or lying down to sleep, but I hoped that my words could be at least somewhat comforting in a way.

Would I always feel this pull now to comfort others dealing with cancer in some form, and would I succeed? On the car ride home, I let this thought sit with me; I felt some sadness about it, but mostly I felt thankful for our conversation. I hoped for more opportunities to be a help or inspiration for others through my mere experience or in the ways I handled myself through it. I don’t feel like I was particularly brave or special, but I never let my hope fade, and I always relied on humor through the thick of it all. I saw now that it impacted people I barely knew who had witnessed my toughest moments, like this woman who had met me on one of the craziest days of my life. I think this can maybe be overwhelming, and maybe I’ll feel differently someday, but these days, I don’t feel bothered by talking to anyone about my experience or about the difficulties I endured. These days, these sorts of conversations bring me a sense of closure and peace.

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