This is the essay I’ve been struggling with. I’m still not ready to write it, but I desperately need to get it out of my head.
You might wonder why, if you’ve called me. I haven’t answered or called you back. I’d like to try and explain. See, if we talked, I’d have to choose a way to present myself or choose an acting back story. I think I’m a pretty good actor, but I’ve learned it takes a tremendous amount of energy. Here are my choices as I currently see them.
Denial: Ignore the whole thing. Pretending that this isn’t happening is certainly tempting. Some days I wake up and feel like my old self. When I’m immersed in an engaging book – often a mystery—or a TV show with compelling characters or plot – let’s hear it for Netflix – it’s pretty easy. Unless, of course, there’s a mirror in the room. Seeing myself bald shatters any possibility of denial. Talking to someone while denying that anything’s wrong is beyond my ability to sustain for any length of time which is why visiting my mother is so difficult. The innocent question, “How are you?” is amazingly tricky.
Truth: The whole truth and nothing but the truth. Unfortunately, I don’t exactly know what the truth is and won’t until I’m re-scanned next month. What I do know is that the cancer (tumor in my breast and one lymph node) that they originally discovered on January 10th has proven to be far more extensive and more aggressive than originally thought. Surgery isn’t an option. I believe the chemotherapy I’m receiving is intended to be palliative rather than curative. (Palliative chemo is intended to extend life while maintaining quality of life rather than curative chemo which is intended to eradicate the cancer.) Originally my oncologist said he felt I had 3 to 5 years. The scan coming in April will give us new data to identify a more determinative prognosis. This level of truth without significant certainty is something I discuss with myself, Dr. Onitilo, and two very close friends. (Frank and the kids get a somewhat edited version of this one.) This is the dark night of the soul identified by poets and philosophers.
If this was a magazine article the following paragraph would be in a boxed and shaded sidebar. Please don’t think I’ve given up. I will certainly partake of all the possible life lengthening opportunities for treatment while measuring the effects against QoL. (That’s Quality of Life for the uninitiated.) I also believe that miracles – big and small, expected and unexpected – occupy a place in life. Odds exist because someone gets to beat them!
The Positive Patient: A motivational speaker in action. Not to be confused with denial, this posture contains the “glass is half full” approach. You’re strong, if anyone can beat this – it’s you, and get well soon all need to be met with a nod and a smile of agreement. My mom. my aunt, I had the same thing and she’s/I’m fine 10 years later, also requires this response. All of these spoken-with-love, encouraging comments are meant to provide the encouragement everyone needs and I appreciate their intent. (Note: this is the paragraph that has kept me from writing this essay for so long. In no way do I want to denigrate the wonderful email messages, cards, and advice I’ve received from so many friends and colleagues. I treasure each and every one. This is a walk in their shoes situation. I know, I’ll change my behavior with others in the future. See the book I recommended in my last post.) The positive, everything will be okay response requires my finest acting skills and tons of energy. I use this script for my grandchildren and friends I encounter in daily life. Friends who call and leave messages and, in my mind, want and need this response, create the most guilt when I ignore them.
Here’s what I’d like to be able to do. Matter of Fact: Telling the resolved truth. Once I know what the scan shows and what my actual prognosis is, and have processed it with my family, it will be easy to share the future. Promising or bleak, I’m really good at expressing this kind of reality. (If you’re a MBTI aficionado you know, it’s what ENTJs do best.)
So, here I am counting the days till the scan while the voice mails and conversation requests mount up. Thanks for reading and understanding. I promise, we will talk soon.