The trip to Pittsburgh went smoothly. In fact, we wound up getting there two hours early. Amazingly, they were delighted to see me so early ~ they had an opening. Because I was seen two hours early, I was even able to make my orientation for clinicals this afternoon, the one that I was so worried about missing. I arrived at that hospital grounds a scant five minutes before my class got there. My teacher was plenty surprised to see me. I was so glad that I made it.
You know, I had cancer. I'm comfortable with that perspective, the looking back one. Yesterday, in the Cancer Center, meeting the elderly woman who was so curious about why I was there made me defensive. I mean, I thought that everyone kind of understood that once you have cancer, you remain a patient at the cancer center long after treatment ends. She wanted to 'talk cancer'. I did not. I did not want to talk about it, or think about it, or hear about it. I'm a student, a wife, a worker, a mother, I'm a lot of things, but I AM NOT A CANCER PATIENT. That's the way I felt.
I left the cancer center, and I felt ashamed of my reaction. Was I curt? Was I rude? But then I got to school and went to lab to study. I had a test. In the hubbub of the last two days, I did not have a lot of time to study for it, so I set my little cup of pee on the table and began to study. Mary, the other 'mature' student in the class hailed me, and flopped down across from me. She is the widow in her late sixties who is studying to be a nurse. We'd talked the first week of class. Got each other's stories (the Reader's Digest version), talked about what brought us back into the classroom. I had said that I had cancer, and that experience caused me to view things much differently. She was lonely, and retired, and wanted to be useful. I think that she is lonely, because she's latched on to me as a kindred spirit, and I suppose we are. So she flopped down across from me, and began talking. "Were you snowed in this morning?" "No," I said, "I have an appointment in Pittsburgh tomorrow, and I needed to get my records. I decided that it was easier to miss my early class than the three hour lab. I sent an e-mail to the teacher." She said, "Why are you going to Pittsburgh?" and I said, "Just for some routine followups." She peered at me. "Do you have cancer again?" I said, "No. It's routine..." and she said, "Not to be a downer, but when my niece got it the second time, it killed her." Inside I thought, "Lord help us if she ever means to be a downer..." but all I said was, "Yes. Sometimes that happens," and continued on with my books. She began to talk about cancer stories, and I thought that I might shriek. Instead, I looked at her and said, as kindly as I could, "Gees, Mary, I hate to be rude, but I really have to study here," and she whispered, "I know! So do I." Bless her heart, she took the hint and began hitting her own books.
Today, in Pittsburgh, I was getting dressed and I listened to the voices of two women sitting in the waiting room. One was an elderly woman, in her seventies, I imagine. She was metatastic. The other woman was younger, probably late forties. She had just completed her first half of chemo. She was having her lumpectomy next week. I listened to the two of them talk, and found myself thinking, "Oh dear God! That poor thing does not need to hear about metatastic breast cancer right now!" and so when I stepped out of the room and threw my robes into the bin, I stopped. The elderly woman was saying, "I did not have chemo. I was afraid of getting sick." The younger woman said, "I haven't been sick at all." I said, "Neither was I." The elderly woman said, "I should have had the chemo. I was afraid." I said, "You know, we all try to make the best decisions for ourselves that we can. It's a confusing time." And we all agreed on that. The young woman peppered me with questions: "When was your cancer?" and "What treatment did you have?" and "Does cancer get easier to deal with as time goe on?" I looked at her tired face, with enormous swollen bags beneath her eyes, and I thought to myself: "This woman has cried today." And just that quickly, I remembered how much crying I'd done in the beginning of this journey. So I told her, "Yes. Yes, it does." And we talked for a few minutes, the three of us creating a little triangle. I was very conscious of my positioning between the newly diagnosed cancer patient and the metatastic cancer patient.
I didn't lie. It does get easier. It's the truth really. I'm far more matter of fact about things that I was 2 and a half years ago. Sometimes I don't want to talk about cancer at all. Other times, like in that waiting room in Pittsburgh, I step into the role of comforter and adviser, and it feels natural. Sometimes, I need to talk about cancer, because not to talk about it would be cruel. And when I do need to talk about cancer these days, I very seldom cry.