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The Follow-up

The new doctor’s reception area is tiny, a borrowed satellite office he visits twice a month. I am here because it is closer for me, although still over an hour away. I’ve traveled it once before and got lost then, too. I expect that I will soon know the route by heart. This is a long-term relationship.

There are women silently sitting shoulder to shoulder. I take my place among them. I want to talk, to ask each one to share the story of her journey, but instead I reach for the lifestyle magazine I have brought along. I consider the fact that I am once again interested in decorating tips and garden projects to be a positive sign. I must be feeling better.

The quiet is deafening. It feels awkward in such a place where spatially we are so close. I wonder if any of them realize how connected we are, united by a common diagnosis? I clear my throat. These are my sisters. Why won’t they speak?

I look at my watch. The wait is long, but I am not surprised. The number of gynecologic oncologists is small, a tiny pool of specialized healers. I understand the logic. It must be very difficult to practice this kind of medicine as compared to, say, obstetricians, who get to welcome babies into this world. The daily parade of women, desperate for life-extending treatment, hopeful that the current lab and scan results are acceptable, punctuates their days. Often, the news is good; sometimes, it is not. This can't be an easy job.

One-by-one the nurse calls a name. I mentally calculate where I might be on the list. A young woman signs in and moves to the chair near mine. She smiles, and so do I.

“I haven’t been here in two years,” she whispers.

“Then, that must mean you have been in remission for a long time,” I say.

“No. Too afraid. It is hard to face the possibility that it could come back.”

I nod in understanding. I have recently joined this sorority, the OC club, where on a good day, you don’t think about the odds of a recurrence, but on bad ones, the monster of uncertainty lurks around every corner. So much rests on these visits to the doctor, the one in whom we place so much of our trust.

Another woman, wearing a pretty scarf to conceal her hairless head, has overheard us. “This is my fourth time to go through chemo, but I’m still fighting.”

“Good for you,” I say, wondering if that is an appropriate response. “We all have to stay strong, Looks like you are doing well.” I add for good measure.

The young woman swallows hard, and I wish I could do something to eliminate her fear. But then, I realize that I don’t know how to do that for myself. I mentally recite a prayer. It calms me.

The receptionist calls a name, and the young woman approaches the window.

“It seems that you don’t have an appointment. Are you sure you made it for this day and this location?”

I can see the panic in her eyes. For a moment, I am tempted to give her my time slot, but then, I am reminded that I am equally as desperate. I cross my fingers that they are able to accommodate her. But the waiting room continues to fill with patients, and all she can do is reschedule.

She waves goodbye, and I give her a thumb’s up. It was a brief encounter, but a vivid reminder that this diagnosis can be a lifelong struggle, even for the victors.

Within minutes, I am escorted into the inner sanctum and shown to an exam room. The new doctor is upbeat, smiling. He offers a hug and seems to remember me, although I can’t imagine how with such a huge patient load. I admire the way he maintains such enthusiasm. So far, I like him. If he can be positive, then, so can I. He performs the exam, then, scans my chart, pleased to let me know that my CA-125 is a 7. It is up a point, but still way below the 1688 at diagnosis.

“Everything looks good,” he says. “See you in two months.”

It is all over in a matter of minutes, and I exhale loudly, unaware that I had been holding my breath. I will have a PET scan following my next visit. That’s the big gun, high stakes test. My heart begins to race as my mind reels over the possibilities. I will myself to calm down. I had better get used to this, my new normal.

But to borrow a line from Scarlet O’Hara, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” Thankfully, tomorrow is another day.

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