First, You Weep
I lay on the table poised only a few feet from the circular dome where the CAT scan would be performed. The technician wrapped a wide Velcro belt around me, a concession made so that I wouldn’t fall off. A proactive medical community anticipates any situation that could be a lawsuit in the making. Welcome to modern America.
I had already drunk the vile container of barium. It had a bit of a milky coconut flavor to it, and I made a mental note to avoid pina coladas for the next few months. The IV was inserted. I was warned that I would experience a warm sensation in my throat and have an overwhelming desire to pee. Funny how they know these things.
As I stared at the ceiling I prayed. And I wondered how many prayers had been said in this very same space, people pleading with God for a positive outcome, a few more years of life. I thought that perhaps that made this a sacred place, a temple of sorts, where the sick and the desperate come to receive a sentence or a dispensation.
It was over in a matter of minutes, a simple procedure of holding and releasing breaths as pictures of every vein and artery, every organ inside my body were photographed, recorded for posterity.
And then, I waited.
I was fortunate that my doctor asked for expedited results. Of course, that meant the receptionist was quick to point out that without preapproval from my insurance I could be on the hook for the amount of the test. And she made me sign the form for good measure. What difference did it make? Surely, my life was worth it. I vowed to buy fewer shoes, just in case.
I sat in the reception area and read a frivolous woman’s magazine, the kind that shows pencil-thin models in outrageous-looking clothes with outrageous price tags. I read about techniques for applying summer-proof eye makeup, and how to pack for a week’s vacation in a carry on.
Across from me sat a woman who fondled prayer beads, her lips moving fast as she spoke to her god. I wanted to ask her what her religion was, since it wasn’t a familiar rosary, but figured that would be intrusive and so, I Googled it. She was Hindu. The idea that we all turn to The Great One when we are in trouble unites us, binds us as children of The Almighty, seeking solace and comfort from His promises. Well, except for the atheists, of course. I guess they ponder what they are going to have for dinner when they go to lie on the table, velcroed on for good measure. I feel sorry for them.
I was told to return to my doctor’s office. You know that they all know what you don’t when they smile sweetly at you, treat you a little more politely than usual, and don’t make you wait in the crowded area. I was ushered into an exam room where I sat and read the rest of the pointless magazine.
The doctor came in and mustered a weak smile. “This is the conversation we never want to have with our patients,” he said. My heart began to race as the little voice inside of my head whispered, “Uh-oh.” I braced myself.
“You have ovarian cancer which has metastasized,” he said all at once.
I think they call this “dropping the bomb,” the most efficient way to deliver bad news.
I nodded and took a deep breath. The room was spinning. I wondered if I would wake up soon, relieved that it had all been a bad dream.
“It’s at a Stage 4, in the peritoneum and lower stomach. There is fluid on your lung, which explains the breathing problems. And the distended abdomen is the growth of the tumor, along with accumulated fluid.”
I thought to last summer. I had a flat stomach for a full two months, the result of dieting and exercise. I thought I looked damn good for an old broad. And I did until cancer took up residence and started messing with my body and my life. My vanity was about to be tested, that’s for sure.
The rest of the conversation was a blur. He spoke of the need to eat well and exercise and get lots of rest. I wondered if he considered chocolate a food group like I did. He mentioned a vegan diet. I tried not to laugh. I mentioned my inability to sleep, the discomfort and pain.
“The oncologist will address that. I will refer you, of course.”
“And how long will that take?” I asked.
“A few weeks, for sure. But don’t worry. The time won’t make much of a difference.”
Welcome to the American healthcare system.
I thought of that statement. Easy for him to say, he didn’t have some alien being growing inside of him, wrapping its insidious tendrils around internal organs. I wondered if he was writing me off, dismissing me. Had I already been handed a death sentence?
He hugged me goodbye and told me to go home and tell my family. That part was hard. You want to be strong and brave for everybody else, reassure them that everything was going to be alright, and that Momma would be there to hold the world together as she always had. I had to dig deep into my acting days for that performance. I called a few close friends. They rallied around me, outpouring their love and support.
I have thought of a million things in the past few days. I wondered who would want my extensive shoe collection. I contemplated my funeral and considered making gumbo to freeze to serve at the after party. I regretted never having seen Paris. I prayed that God would give me the strength and courage to fight without being in too much pain. And if the inevitable happens, I hoped to be worthy to be welcomed into heaven, embraced by the beauty which is the Holy Spirit.
You know, I have done breast self exams since I was sixteen, gotten my regular mammograms. I have sported pink ribbons and celebrated during the month of October. But nobody warned me of ovarian cancer. And without a family history, I had no idea I was at risk until the symptoms presented themselves. By that time, it is too late. Now, I am arm wrestling it for my life. But I can be a bad-ass when pushed into a corner, and I will come out punching.
The irony isn’t lost on me. More than any other part of my anatomy, my ovaries are what made me a woman. Indeed, they were firmly in charge of my libido, my hormonal mood swings, my PMS (which my husband once dubbed Paula Millet syndrome.) Every month, they released an egg. Three of them were fertilized. My three sons. They created life. And now, they threaten to rob me of mine. What can I say? Life can be a beach, but it can also be a bitch.
I intend to write about this journey as much as possible before my brain turns to mush. It is going to get ugly, I’m afraid, but maybe my experience can help somebody else. That would give it some meaning, for sure. And maybe I just want something to leave behind. We all want to be remembered, right?
In the meantime, I will try to center my thoughts on the good times, the memorable moments that I have experienced. I have been blessed beyond what I deserve. Truly. I will spend the time with those who mean the most to me and remember to laugh whenever I can. I may even go see if I can find a bull called “Fu Man Chu” to ride. I plan to pack as much living into the time I have left.
I ask for your prayers. Miracles happen. Send me lots of happy thoughts and positive vibes. I’ll gather strength from them. Promise.
BTW.. My dear friend took this pic of me yesterday. We went to the lake to laugh and cry and question the universe. Thankfully, she cropped out the belly. I still have a little vanity left.