Sunday, September 12, 2010


It’s easier to know you have cancer than not to know.
On a Friday in April, I was due to get the results from my biopsy. I called the doctor’s office in the morning to ask about the report and give my phone numbers. And then I waited, as calmly as a live wire lying across the road, twisting and sparking. The phone would ring; my heart would pound; it would not be the doctor.
It was the last day of my ten-year-old daughter’s spring vacation. Dan and I hadn’t told our kids anything yet, so I tried to act as if everything were normal. Wanting to earn a little money, Miss L asked me if I would pay her for a manicure or pedicure. We agreed: a pedicure and foot massage for three dollars. She gathered her supplies and prepared her work area. I had to edit a client’s document, so I printed out the pages and got out my red pen.
She welcomed me to her salon—the family room—seated me on the couch and propped my feet up on a stool. She asked if I wanted to hear any music. I said I did, so she put on her favorite CD, Taylor Swift’s Fearless.
Miss L went to work on my feet, first a salt scrub followed by lotion, then nail filing and finally polish. As she worked, she sang along a little to the music. She sang, “Capture it, remember it,” then told me, “that’s my favorite line.” I told her it was a very, very good line to choose as her favorite.
The rest of the day passed without a call from the surgeon. It was a sunny, warm spring evening, and Dan and I went out to the deck to have a beer. We started doing this last summer: carving out some time for ourselves—a happy hour—on Fridays, just to talk and focus on each other. That Friday, we talked of other things, but mostly, of course, of the news we were waiting for. He said he felt pretty positive; I said I didn’t. I had seen the explosion of white on my mammogram; I had heard the solemn concern in the radiologist’s voice during my biopsy.
My doctor called the next morning. I don’t recall the exact sentence he said. Was it “We did find a small cancer” or “You do have a small cancer”? The next sentence I do remember clearly: “It’s very treatable.” I went numb, but I asked questions, took notes. Dan came into the room a minute after I hung up the phone. I said, “It’s cancer,” and he burst out, “Come on!” in the same tone he directs toward the television when the shortstop lets the grounder through, when the receiver lets the wide-open pass slip through his grasping hands. “I let the team down,” I joked, still benumbed.
I told him what I had just learned: surgery first, radiation, probably chemo. I gave him the details of the tumor and the survival odds—my survival odds, now. We quickly agreed to tell our daughters that evening.
Capture it, remember it: the look on Miss L’s face as we brought cancer into her life that night at dinner. I had to turn away for a moment, just a moment, before I could look at her stunned eyes again and reach my hand out to her cheek.
Ten weeks after this day, after surgery and a great pathology report, Dan and I waited for another phone call, for more results that would change everything. My bone scan had shown an area in my right hip that could have been old damage, arthritis, a benign bone disease—or a metastasis of my breast cancer. Although my lymph nodes were clear, it is possible, if rare, for cancer cells to have traveled through my bloodstream and colonized in my skeleton. And that would mean this: stage IV instead of stage I. Incurable. I would go from a ten-year survival rate of 98% after treatment, to a five year rate of 20%. This was ugly. This was fear.
So for two weeks, we waited, through an inconclusive PET scan and then a bone biopsy, for another phone call. This time, the waiting was so much worse. I was so far from fearless. Once again, Dan was the more positive one. He said he was worried, but he just couldn’t imagine it being true. But I could. I could imagine every part of it: the call from the doctor, telling Dan, telling the girls, telling everyone. A series of treatments and complications. Fighting with the insurance company. Helping Dan get ready to be both mother and father. Trying to prepare my daughters to grow up without me.
This part of the story has a happy ending. The call came, the call that ended my depthless fear, and this time the words were, “No evidence of malignancy.” I laughed and cried right on the phone with my doctor. I texted Dan to invite him to the Happiest Hour Ever on the deck. And when he walked into the kitchen, we held on and on and on.
‘Cause I don’t know how it gets better than this / Capture it, remember it.

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