There are lots of things I don’t mind waiting for: the start of a concert, those days before a baby is born, for Christmas to come. There is an anticipation associated with that kind of waiting, and it colors the wait with bright, vibrant expectant excitement. That kind of wait tastes like cinnamon.
I don’t like waiting on unknowns. Those things whose outcomes are unpredictable: the limbo period after a job interview, waiting for the cast list to go up, weather forecasts, test results. Those waits tiptoe around my mind smearing blue and deep purple, grey. Waits like that slowly float under waterfalls of worry. Those kinds of waits, the ones without anticipation sprinkled in, taste like scalded milk and smell like hot plastic.
For the last six months or so, I’ve had nagging and unidentifiable right-side pain. I’ve done all the things I normally do when I’m putting off a doctor’s appointment: have Jamie look at it, ask Mama to “feel right here,” Googled it, consulted friends. I know I should’ve made my appointment earlier, but life gets in the way. Besides, one must consider all those super important factors: schedule, time away from the office, insurance deductibles.
I’d already been to the emergency room with it once, believing it to be appendicitis. Which, after three blown veins, four vials of blood, a negative CT scan, a right quadrant ultrasound, and a seven-hour wait, it was determined that it was most certainly not.
I flipped a coin between an OBGYN or Gastroenterology appointment. OBGYN won.
I’ve always had a strong desire to keep the number of folks who have seen me naked incredibly low. When my mother-to-be doctor in Virginia told me that I’d have to see all ten of the doctors in the practice while I was pregnant, I lost track of the actual number.
I have yet to meet a woman who enjoys an OBGYN visit. In order for me to classify that appointment as a “good visit,” I have to prepare. I like for my appointment to be the first one of the day because I don’t want the doctor to have anyone else to compare me with before I get there. Also, I like the idea of taking a shower, getting dressed and going straight to the appointment. I don’t want there to be errand running in between. Usually, I schedule a pedicure for the day before, or I take a pair of fuzzy socks. I am convinced that if I don’t, the doctor will leave my exam room and say something to the nurses like, “You should get a load of this woman’s feet! Lord! Can’t people pumice their heels before they come in here?” I always ensure my legs are shaved and lotioned well above the knee. I always wear my best-looking underwear, even though I carefully fold my clothes and place them on the bench inside my exam room. I don’t want my doctor to see rumpled clothes and think I live out of a laundry basket. (Which I most definitely do.)
This appointment wasn’t supposed to be one of those. So, I didn’t do my normal prep. I assumed she would tell me whatever was causing the pain was no big deal. So, when she walked back through the door after our initial discussion and another right quadrant ultrasound and said, “I’d like to do some further testing. We found something I would classify as complex.” I was shocked. Stunned. “Complex?” I asked her. “What does that mean?”
“Usually ovarian cysts are full of clear fluid. This one isn’t. So, it’s not a cyst. It’s a complex tumor. I’d like to run some further tests. Can you do it now or would you like to make an appointment to come back?”
There was humming in my ears, but I heard myself say, “No. Now is fine. Let’s do everything you need to do while I’m here.” She answered me gently while she handed me the thin, soft, white sheet, “Ok. Go ahead and undress from the waist down. We’re going to need to do a pelvic ultrasound and then I’ll send you over to our lab for some bloodwork.”
They only had one ultrasound technician that day, so I waited for a while in the exam room. I found a Southern Living that promised recipes for All American Desserts and Easy Summer Salads. To keep my mind from racing, I read an article aloud about the Secrets of a Catfish Master and tried not to think about the boys.
The ultrasound tech was thoughtful. I lay very still and tried to relax. I remembered the last time I’d had this type of ultrasound, we confirmed Colin had a heartbeat. I saw her take a picture of something and type 2cm to the side of the image. It was over quickly. Didn’t hurt a bit.
I got dressed and walked down the hall for lab work. The phlebotomist was on the phone rattling off a series of numbers that I wasn’t supposed to understand. As she hung up the phone, she looked over her shoulder and asked with an encouraging smile, “Mrs. Cantrell??” I nodded, and she continued, “Our practitioner has ordered tests I’ve never run before. You’re a special case today.” I tried to laugh and explained to her that it was always hard to find a vein in my arms, but I wanted to try until they got what they needed. “Don’t you worry,” she reassured me, “I’m going to get it on the first try.” And she did.
I met one last time with the practitioner. She said the tumor was attached to my right ovary and was only 2 centimeters in size. I asked if there were ovarian cancer symptoms that I could have missed. She said ovarian cancer is commonly called the silent killer because most symptoms are usually brushed off until the disease has progressed. She rattled off a list of about seven common symptoms. I didn’t have any of them. She said the bloodwork would confirm if we “had something to plan for.” She said the good news is that whatever this is, it’s small.
I wanted her to say she didn’t think I had anything to worry about. I wanted her to say she’d seen things like this a million times before. I listened for phrases like “no big deal” or “something to keep an eye on.” Instead, she said the results would likely take until Monday because they were so specialized. It was Wednesday morning. I smelled hot plastic.
Once I got settled in the car, I called Jamie. I very calmly explained. He was quiet and said all the right things. I told him I wasn’t worried, and at that moment, I wasn’t. I called Ginny. She’d already texted to ask how the appointment had gone. She was calm, quiet and said all the right things. As we hung up, her voice broke as she said, “We’ve got this, Zizzy. Whatever it is. We’ve got it.”
What if this is ovarian cancer? What if Ginny has to help Jamie raise the boys? How will I ever tell Mama and Daddy?
It was lunchtime, but I wasn’t hungry. I drove back to my office. I finished my workday. I drove home. I fixed supper. I cleaned up, did a load of laundry. We watched an episode of Frasier on Netflix. On the news, there were rumblings of a hurricane in the Gulf.
We will probably get lots of rain. There are peanuts on the ground. Some folks had already defoliated cotton. There is a field full of calves in the pasture on my way home. I hope it doesn’t rain too hard. Should we get some water just in case? These things are always blown so out of proportion.
Colin asked me to read him a bedtime story. So, we climbed into my bed and he snuggled close. His hair was still damp, and his skin still smelled like warm water and bath soap. I breathed deep.
We read a bedtime favorite, The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. It’s about a Russian immigrant Jewish family who passes a hand-sewn quilt from generation to generation. It’s used as a chuppah, to wrap new babies in, as a tablecloth. As Colin slept with his fingers threaded through mine, I began to plan.
If this is cancer, I will fight it with everything I am. I will keep things as normal as I possibly can. I will start a journal for the boys. I will record my voice reading books and poems and telling our family stories. I will have engagement rings made for both the boys out of a set of diamond earrings. I should go ahead and get a flu shot – just in case.
The next day, Thursday, I felt more positively about things. Friday came and went, and I didn’t allow myself much time to be still. The weekend was busy with chores and obligations. I texted a handful of friends and asked for prayer. I prayed, too, mostly in fits and starts, in whispered phrases, over quiet tears in a hot shower or after turning off the light on my nightstand. There were no complete thoughts, really, just silent snatches of thought after deep breaths.
There were lots of things to be thankful for: whatever this is it’s very small; they found a vein on the first try; my practitioner is being incredibly thorough…
I decided there were lots of “good signs”: my practitioner shared a name with a favorite fictional character; her child shared my maiden name; the lights were green on the way home from work; there was one ginger ale left when I got home…
On Monday, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I called the office at 4:00pm. The nurse explained all the results weren’t in yet. She was kind but said there was nothing to be done but wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. I’d waited all I could stand. I didn’t want to wait anymore. I wanted to know. I needed a plan. I didn’t want limbo. I couldn’t run through any more what if’s. There was no one in my office, so I just let myself cry. Ugly, red-faced, gasping cries.
Just as suddenly as it came, it stopped. I couldn’t control results, but I could control fear. For now, I was done. No more tears. No more worry. I was going to soak up as much good as I could and not fret about the rest. I couldn’t. There was no point.
On Tuesday around 5:30pm, the practitioner called. “We don’t know what it is, but it’s not ovarian cancer. All your levels look great. We are going to be closed tomorrow and Thursday because of the hurricane. I’m sorry about the wait.” And just like that, it was over.
On the way home, I stopped for a case of water. A hurricane was coming.