I hear my iPhone vibrate just before the end of the therapy session. By the time my client dries her tears, writes a check, and takes a few Kleenex for the road, it’s 12:55–five minutes before my next client.
I punch in the voicemail code and listen. It’s the doctor, the one who removed a polyp from my uterus the week before.
“It’s likely nothing,” she had assured me. “Ninety-nine percent of the time everything’s fine.”
Now I hear her voice: “I need to talk with you, so call me. They can come and get me even if I’m with someone.”
Because I must be with someone and their troubles in less than five minutes, I don’t call then. But in that moment I know I have cancer.
I pretend I don’t know so I can make it through the session. Then I usher my client out the door and prepare myself to return the call I don’t want to return. I’m supposed to meet my friend Deb for a walk—a walk I’ll need now more than ever, which is why I do not cancel it. I can count on Deb. I can also count on her to be late, so I hit “Call back” on the doctor’s message en route to our rendezvous spot.
The doctor says she’s sorry to have to tell me this, but the biopsy turned out to be cancerous.
“We were all so surprised!” she blurts out, apologizing for how light-hearted everyone had been during the outpatient procedure.
It’s true—she, the nurses, and I had treated it like a lark, laughing and telling raunchy jokes as I, woozy with painkillers, lay on my back with my feet in the stirrups while they dug out the suspect tissue.
The doctor tells me she doesn’t yet know much, but wanted to call right away so I could begin to wrap my mind around this. She utters the words “uterine papillary serous carcinoma,” which I gather is the technical term for uterine cancer. I write it down so I can look it up at the end of my long, busy day. The doctor quickly mentions next steps, adding that early detection is on our side. I can tell she wants to get off the phone even more than I do.
Luckily, Deb arrives just then, so I release the doctor and turn to my friend.
“Guess what? I just found out I have cancer,” I say matter-of-factly.
Deb is full of hugs and sympathy, even though she cannot keep from pointing out the house where her friend who died of melanoma lived.
“Don’t tell Jonathan,” she says, meaning my husband, who was diagnosed with melanoma two years ago. He’s completely fine now.
I’m not sure if Deb means I shouldn’t tell Jonathan some people die of what didn’t kill him, or if I shouldn’t tell him I have cancer.
But I do tell him, when we are both home from work. Jonathan is shocked, as am I, which must be why I’ve so blithely been able to carry on with my day even though my life has been upended.
Jonathan and I both assume that, like him, I’ll be fine, too. Uterine cancer, after all, is the one everyone says is the kind to have if you must have cancer. Even my mother, a hypochondriac given to fits of hysteria, sailed through hers with barely a whimper.
After a brief interlude of hugs and tears, Jonathan and I sail through the rest of our evening as if nothing, not even cancer, can interfere with our plans. We are determined to watch President Obama accept the nomination for a second term at the Democratic Convention. We are even more determined to present a good face to our 21-year-old daughter, Ally, who returns later that night brimming with stories from a backpacking trip. We lap up her enthusiasm as if our lives depend on it. Perhaps they do.
After everyone has gone to bed, I sit down at the computer a few minutes before midnight and google the fancy term the doctor used: “Uterine papillary serous carcinoma.”
Rare and aggressive.
This is not my mother’s uterine cancer. I read on, fear choking me like ash. Even women with Stage 1 UPSC have an iffy prognosis. Will I make it to Ally’s college graduation next year?
For six months between that moment at 12:55 and the first day of spring, when treatment ends, my life is measured out in precisely timed appointments: CT scans; a complete hysterectomy sandwiched between pre-op and post-op meetings; oncology and Chinese medicine consults; chemo and nutrition classes; bloodwork; wig fittings; three rounds of internal radiation; acupuncture; six infusions of poison into my veins. I imagine the invisible cancer mushrooming inside me. Not knowing how many moments I have left, each moment is etched in my brain.
Then it is over, and I am fine. At least for the time being. I make it to my daughter’s college graduation. In the pictures of me standing next to her in cap and gown, my smile is wide, my wig slightly askew.
When I was a teenager I read a short story about people who are granted the power to learn the exact hour and manner of their deaths. Initially grateful, they spend all their time trying to outfox fate, to no avail. They die anyway, having spent their entire lives obsessed, anxious, and miserable.
The last thing I want is a crystal ball. Time already stopped once, at 12:55 on a September afternoon. I do not want to know when it will stop for good.
Today is the third anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. I am fine. What moments–for better and for worse–are etched in your memory?