I was so prepared for bad news about my scan, I didn’t even know how to react when I heard it was clear. It took at least a minute to register. In fact, it’s still sinking in.
Not since the summer of 1994 have I been this pleasantly surprised and flabbergasted by good test results. One day, I answered the phone and it was Mrs. Bergen, my history teacher who called to say that I scored a four (out of four) on the A.P. U.S. History exam. “Four?” I repeated suspiciously. “Are you talking to the right person? This is Josie.” She laughed, and said, “Yes, I know.”
My doctor was happy to deliver the good news. In fact, she thought I’d already known the results so the big reveal was a little anti-climactic. I hadn’t thought to ask the nurse, who came in first to ask me some questions. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t thinking clearly and I didn’t know if she was allowed to tell me. She seemed cheerful, but she’s always a lot of fun to talk to. When she talked to me about getting re-vaccinated the next time I come in, I thought the news might be good, but still, I didn’t ask. (Since I have a new immune system, I have to get all my vaccines again.) After she left the room, my boyfriend mentioned that she wouldn’t be talking about vaccines if my scan hadn’t been clear. I was so terrified to allow myself false hope, I still didn’t ask.
When the doctor came in, she said something about the clear scan, because she thought I’d already known the results. I could have looked online, but I didn’t want to misinterpret the results, especially because I have that troublesome weird spot.
As for the mystery blob that shows up on the scans, it’s gotten smaller. So it’s not cancer, but it’s still not clear what it is. My boyfriend thinks it’s bottled up anger that’s dissipating. He compared it to the part in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, when the Grinch’s (spoiler alert) heart grows three sizes, but instead, the ball of anger that resides in my pancreas is shrinking. I have noticeably less ire.
I do have some radiation-related inflammation in my lungs, but the doctor says it’s even less than she would have expected. As she flipped through the scans on the computer to show me the results, I was still in a state of shock.
I also learned that I might be the only person who wears my MedAlert bracelet that I was told to order when I left the hospital. If I ever need a transfusion, it’s to make sure I get irradiated blood. I asked my doctor how long I have to wear the bracelet, and she said that no one had ever asked her that or mentioned the MedAlert gear. My boyfriend, who loves to interject information while I’m at the doctor’s office, piped up that I’m a goodie-goodie. This is true. It didn’t even occur to me not to do as I was told. I was given a MedAlert order form that was already partially filled out when I was discharged after my transplant and I thought it was mandatory. Also, my friend who analyzes blood gave me a really good explanation of why I need irradiated blood.
The answer to my question about wearing the bracelet is, as it turns out, for the rest of my life, unless I get a wallet card or something. The rest of my life is now a big, exciting thing instead of a question mark. Sure, I know that the cancer can come back. I’ll always have that little question mark in the back of my head. (Or, I suppose, in my pancreas.) But I’ve been given the gift of another six months, at least—possibly a lifetime—of not having cancer. I’m really on the other side of this thing. When I think about it, I sometimes get lightheaded. My life has been on pause, and I can resume it.
When I look back at the past few years, what upset me wasn’t the actual treatment. The chemo, the IVs, the hospital stays, the phebitis—these were tough. But the worst part was having to put my life on hold.
We can’t plan, really, for the future. I don’t know what it holds for me. In fact, after my scan results, I was certain I would be struck by a bus or hit on the head by a falling anvil (the kind that reside in the sky to unfairly take people out who have just received good news). My cynicism has returned. But I can actually move forward right now. I can think in the long term, like everyone else. Yesterday, I thought of vacations. I can go to the beach with my boyfriend’s family. I can plan to go to Europe and meet my best friend’s baby, who was born while I was going through chemo and is now a toddler. It’s as if my life has been in the hands of cancer and I’m finally being given back the controls. It’s wildly exhilarating.
I could steal a police car and drive down to D.C. for a friend’s birthday party, but I think the police work stoppage is over. And I am a goodie-goodie. And I hate driving. So there you have it. The craziest thing I did yesterday was at The Vaselines show we went to in the evening. One of the band members, Frances, was at the merch table and I bought a T-shirt and wore it right then. At the show! That’s a big concert faux-pas. You can’t wear the shirt of the band you’re seeing at the show. But after I bought the shirt, I said, “I’m going to wear it.” And Frances said, “You should!” So I did. That’s about as crazy as I get these days.
I didn’t complete my bucket list yesterday. The free pizza place was too crowded, and after the doctor’s appointment, we were too hungry to make the detour to Roosevelt Island. We went to lunch in our neighborhood and ordered an antipasti plate. The man dining next to us happened to be looking at me, of course, as a piece of prosciutto fell from my fork. I felt his eyes upon me as I looked down at my lap puzzled and didn’t see my renegade ham. I then saw his gaze fall to the floor, where the proscuitto lay. I picked it up and put it to the side on my plate, vaguely embarrassed.
I thought that maybe after cancer, I would be different somehow. Braver. Maybe not as shy. But I’m still essentially the same. When I was back in Cleveland for the holidays, I went to the old Metroparks area where I had spent so much time as a teenager with my friends. I hadn’t realized how lucky I’d been growing up a few minutes away from such a beautiful spot. I hadn’t been much in the winter, and it was particularly lovely with a dusting of snow. Being there with my boyfriend was meaningful—I hadn’t realized I’d never visited the park with him. A friend’s memorial bench sits in the park. I’d always felt guilty somehow for losing touch with him before he died. You always think there will be more time. But as I had time to reflect on mortality this past year, I wouldn’t resent people I lost touch with. In the end, I would value them as much as part of my life, even if it were in the past. People had time to reach out to me, since my situation was years long. I put my guilt to rest that day and smiled at the inscription that’s serious but funny at the same time, as I remember he was. It says he “came here…a lot.”
A lot of things clicked into place during that cold walk, being in a spot where I’d spent so much time as a teen, dreaming how my life would be. I had meant to write it down in a blog, but time got away from me. That’s one thing that I’ve promised my boyfriend I would do if I got a good scan—work less and do fewer 12-hour days and make time for fun.
I’m sure this experience has changed me in some way, but I’m still figuring out how. I still do things like drop ham into my lap at nice restaurants.
After lunch, I celebrated with a nap that spanned the entire afternoon to make up for the previous week’s restless nights. I feel as if I’d been holding my breath for the past few weeks and that I can finally breathe.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in oneself in general, but especially when you’re dealing with cancer. While feeling especially supported by those around you, you’re also really alone. I tried to wrap up all my anxiety within myself, but when I made my announcement that my scan was clear and got responses, I didn’t realize how many people were holding their breath with me. It’s as if Friday’s gusts of wind that swept down the streets of Manhattan on my way to the train after receiving the good news was just the collective sigh of everyone I knew.
Before I left the doctor’s office, I called my mom. Her palpable happiness has one of the best things I’ve ever heard. My boyfriend’s mom, my friend’s mom—does anyone feel things as deeply as mothers do?—sent happy missives, cried, did joyful dances. My boyfriend gave me a big, relieved hug after the news. Friends sent me messages. I had somehow forgotten how much my own story affects others, after two years of people telling me how much they cared about me.
That’s the good thing that came out of all of this. As I’ve said before, I’m not one of those people who thinks things happen for a reason. But I do think you can learn from what happens. During my post-cancer depression, I really hit some lows. Everyone was so happy for me, yet I couldn’t join them. Now I can. I’m finally ready to start celebrating—and living—again, on my own terms.
Goodbye cancer. Finally. Maybe we will meet again. I hope not.