I arrived in the waiting area of West Side Radiology ten minutes after my scheduled appointment time. Of course, that’s not surprising if you know me. I am always late. Still, I made it with my forms in hand and a belly filled with 24 ounces of creamy vanilla flavored barium. I had chilled two bottles of the thick liquid meant to illuminate my insides over night then stuck a straw in of them at about 9:15. I managed it down before hoping the shower but I knew the second one would be a challenged because I was no longer under the delusion that it was going to truly taste like a frothy milkshake.
Once outside, I started the car, glanced down at the dashboard clock and then pulled out my space headed towards Manhattan. Finally, fifteen minutes after I should’ve started the second bottle, I stuck the straw in it and started taking slow sips. I knew delaying wasn’t going to make it taste better or negate the fact that I had to drink the stuff but I got it down the only way I could; very, very, very slowly. Nonetheless, I got all of the barium in me before a queasy feeling set in. No matter, I knew I had to shake it off so I could stroll over the radiologist office from the parking garage.
With my plastic bag tucked under my arm and my hair flopping in the refreshing spring breeze, I looked like everyone else on the street. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder where they were going and if it was to as depressing a place as I was headed. I noticed people smiling, laughing, and chatting carelessly on the phone. Amazingly, I couldn’t think of one person to call on my five block jaunt. Not because I have no friends or family that would care that I was going to get two CAT scans but I couldn’t take hearing the fear, pity or sadness in their voice. Just as a wave of depression came over me, a man looked at me in a longing way. He smiled then waved and waited for my reaction. I said a quick hello and kept walking but his gesture stuck with me. For those few moments, I felt like a normal, desirable women again and not some sickly person on their way to find out how twisted her insides are and what the surgeon needs to do to set it right.
Like I said, I got to the radiologist office ten minutes off pace which turned out to be fine since I was one of only three patients. There was a woman with no legs; it appeared that they had been amputated. An elderly man with a horrible cough sat to my right and a black woman, who looked maybe ten years older than me, sat across the way from me with her husband with a frown on her face. The only person in the room who looked like he was there by mistake was this 6 foot tall white man, dressed in a button down shirt, jeans and some casual black shoes. He was smiling as if he didn’t have a care in the world. But let’s face it, without saying a world, we all knew that if were in this office each of us had something wrong with us.
The waiting room was silent until the roll call of names began. I was called second. I followed the parade of people into the back so we could all change into those backless gowns that demoralize you by forcing you to stand naked in front of strangers, stripping away you last bit of privacy and normalcy. Once we were wearing the uniform of the infirmed, each of us was hauled off to a room containing a machine that would peer inside of us.
The hum of the CAT scan machine was actually soothing. It distracted me from the warm liquid from the IV in my arm that was racing through my veins, causing a scratching in the back of my throat, itching underneath my skin and my stomach to feel as if it were doing summersaults. The only thing that interrupted the noise was the voice of the technician instructing me to breathe in and out, hold my breath, and let it go on cue. Never in another other area of my life would I take guidance from a stranger, but in there I did what I was told so the time would fly pass and the technician could get the images he needed. Twenty minutes later I was free to get dressed and rejoin the world.
That black woman who was sitting across from me in waiting room wasn’t so lucky. Her world had been turned upside down in the time I lay in the CAT scan machine. She was out in the hall when I emerged from my room shouting. At first I couldn’t tell about what, but as I approached I heard her say she came in for just one biopsy. She’d been told she had Cancer. I guess prior to today, she thought it was only in one breast but when she went into the exam room she learned they wanted a sample from both. She refused and was screaming she wanted her clothes so she could leave. The nurse called her husband to the back to calm her down and try to convince her to have the procedure and another MRI. When I walked out ten minutes later she was dressed in her street clothes like I was so I would gather she was not doing anything at all.
At 37 years old, I never could’ve predicted that I would spend more time in a hospital than my parents and grandparents combined, that all of them would be worried about my mortality rather than the other way around, or that I would spend nearly every day off I have from work shuttling from doctor, to hospital, to radiologist, to pharmacy instead of kicking back and relaxing. No matter what I thought prior to this age, this has become my reality and living with Cancer is that woman’s new truth.
I’m not complaining about what ails me. As I like to say, it is what it is, but it is still very disconcerting not to be “normal;” whatever that really means. I mean, after all, I appear to be just like my friends, family and co-workers. I go to work, maintain a household and have regular social interactions but all of the aforementioned always depend on how I am feeling on a given day. I could wake up today feeling spry but be unable to get off the sofa tomorrow.
It’s hard when you’re mind is well but the body isn’t able. I know that probably part of the anger that black woman from the radiology center was feeling. It’s frightening when your body betrays you and begins failing despite your best efforts to keep it well. It’s debilitating to think that your time maybe up sooner than you would want or worse yet, that you will be trapped here on Earth in a shell of a body that no longer looks or behaves normally. I choose not to give in. I choose to fight and I hope that woman, whoever she is, doesn’t give in to fear and anger and battle back to beat her disease.