The doctor is 42 minutes late coming into the room. I’ve been playing a game in my head, “well, if she’s late it must be good news, because she’s not worried about me having to wait so long.” Followed by, “well, if she’s late it must be bad news, because she needs to finish up with the appointment before mine, so she can spend as much time as she needs to with me.” The waiting for the doctor to deliver test results thing – always a bad scene. It could be worse. My friend D. has come with me. She lived through 8 ½ years of fertility treatments before the twins, so she is an expert at the waiting for news thing – and is a veteran of it not always being good. She points to the plastic covered spiral bound book hanging from the ultrasound machine, “I know everything in that book. Want me to perform one on you?” “No thanks,” I say, but flip through it anyway.
Everything is well done here at the Pink Lotus Breast Center. Besides the ultrasound machine and the exam bed, it’s nice. For a doctor’s exam room, it’s not a bad room. Calm pink walls, a pretty abstract lithograph tasteful enough to hang in my apartment, an expensive flower arrangement that is definitely on its last day – it’s beginning to reek. It’s Friday afternoon so that makes sense.
Thank God it’s not one of those hideous doctor’s office rooms with the giant pictures of viruses and disease warning signs – or stacks of old Redbooks, or the worst – my gyno’s office – where she has pictures of her patient’s kids scotch taped all over the cabinets. Success stories I guess.
Feeling rebellious I get out of my chair and open the Levolors. A parking lot. The room doesn’t really brighten – it’s late.
D. makes us a cootie catcher – one of those little paper folding toys that you pick a number and a color and flip it open to find out your fortune. It’s something she used to do with her husband while waiting to see if she could keep a baby. We try to be funny – “blue, 5. B-l-u-e, 1-2-3-4-5 – Steal the fluffy exam robe”. “Yellow, 7. Y-e-l-l-o-w, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 – You don’t have cancer.” Fucking worst word in the English language. Cancer, it makes me think of how I won’t drive on Santa Monica Blvd between 14th and 20th so I don’t have to pass the John Wayne Cancer Center. How I won’t watch the ending of Fried Green Tomatoes – Mary Louise Parker wasting away in that bed. I think of being 15 and in my best friend’s pink bedroom late at night, her desk lamp on, her little radio playing “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” while we are both pretending to sleep the night they carried her mother out – bundled up like a baby in a black and rainbow afghan and thrown over one shoulder. I hadn’t even recognized her that afternoon. After months dying in a hospital bed in what used to be their dining room she looked too small – her mouth gaping open, her eyes vacant. S’s bedroom, her Chessie Railroad System kitten poster thumbacked to her pink wall and “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”
Dr. Funk bursts into the room. “It’s cancer.” Red 6. She just says it. She drops on to her wheely stool and looks dead at me. She’s beautiful; blonde, great skin, blue eyes, a little Cindy Crawford mole above her lip. She has a fun nasally way of talking and a cadence all her own. She actually founded the Pink Lotus Breast Center, and I’m sure she’s the one who made sure the valet parking was free – which means a lot – the office is in Beverly Hills.
I appreciate her even more for skipping the whole “how you doin’ shit – it’s pretty obvious how I’m doing.” It’s a plunge into cold water, but I knew it was coming.
I knew it was coming the day before when I felt her sort of shift during the punch biopsy. It’s an in office biopsy procedure where she inserts a thin metal rod to clip a tiny piece of the mass in question. It was just after she pulled the trigger – I felt a warmth, – fluid spill down the side of my breast. The tech wiped it away quickly – but not quickly enough for it not to have happened. I couldn’t see her, but I felt her, darken. “You should bring someone with you tomorrow.” I wonder if she thought she sounded at all like she did when she had said I had “probably nothing to really worry about” earlier. She did not.
She tries to reassure me, her tone a little brighter, “I might have just clipped something.” But when she is standing at the door I press her for an answer. She says, “70/30 cancer.” And I had tried to will it into being the rest of the day and all that night – that 30%. I’m not a “C” student.
So here we are. She pulls out a printed piece of paper with the Pink Lotus letterhead – very classy. “From here to cure: What are the best choices for me?” After “name” it is filled in in black ink – Brockett, Catheryn. And after Date – 5/20/11.
“Can you hear me now? We can do this on Monday,” she offers, genuinely, as if she has all the time in the world. I think about how shitty the last 24 hours have been, how exhausting it was to will good news that wasn’t going to happen and stretch that out in my head over a weekend and say “no, I can to do this now.” And I know why she was so late. “You just had to do this didn’t you? A diagnosis double header. And it’s Friday afternoon.”
She answers with a deadpanned, “yeah, I guess I could have put you both in the same room and done it once, but that would be wrong,” she smiles, “and rude.”
Then with understanding, “we’ll get you through this – it’s just going to be a really bad summer”.
“A cancercation,” I reply with what I think is gangbusters wit given my current situation. D. laughs and reaches for my hand. I don’t really want to hold it but I do.
“I’ve scheduled you for surgery May 31st.”
I object, “but June first is my birthday!” She gives me a half smile and says, “well, at least you’ll get to wake up on your birthday cancer free!” I love her, I hate her. I guess I’ll have to cancel my flight to go back East for the birthday party my best friend and cousins have planned for me.
Now I’m glad I feel my hand in someone else’s. I squeeze back.
She carefully goes over every step on the paper – filling in details with the same black ink. Surgery options with recurrence rates, over all survival rates. She explains the kind of cancer I have – (apparently the ‘better’ one – yay…) drawing a pert side view Barbie looking breast with lines through it. She gets to number 5 “Other considerations” which is like the grab bag of terror for me. (I’ve always been a worrier, and cancer is a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare and biggest wet dream. But I never wanted to have to deal with this!) I need a PET/CT bone and brain scan. A BRCA test which determines if I have the crazy cancer gene, in which case women usually go straight for the double mastectomy – it takes about 2 weeks and they would be sending it out today. And I should consider fertility preservation. She writes the name and phone number of a Dr. that she would recommend. I had actually been considering freezing my eggs – no dragging my feet now I guess.
She gets to number 6 “Build a team of physicians and support” and starts to talk about an oncologist and nutrition and Chinese Medicine but she also recommends I get set up with someone about my age who has been through this already. It says “Funk Buddy” printed right there on the pink paper. Next to it she writes “YES” in capital letters. I think it’s funny but I’m not sure I want to have a sense of humor yet.
She probably knows she’s lost me by now, so she draws a little square in the bottom right hand of the paper and writes “Plan” with only 4 things to do. Breast MRI, surgery on the 31st, make oncologist appointment 6/17/11, and a pre op physical.
I would forget to do several key things on the paper. Mostly because I didn’t want to see it again – with it’s Barbie boobie drawing and recurrence rates and survival rates and scary words. That pre op appointment I was supposed to have before Tuesday to get cleared for surgery, – forgot. (Heartfelt begging got me in one morning before regular office hours.)
On the drive back to D.’s house I make the phone calls. Fueled by momentum, not courage I make quick work of getting the news out to the people that were going to have to know. We pick up BBQ and I gladly pay – nothing was going to make any of this better, but it could have been worse – I could have been there alone. And no amount of brisket, baby back ribs, or sweet potato fries were ever going to be enough to thank her for that.