Then I was flying to LA. You know how when your plane lands and your phone picks up service again, you get that avalanche of text messages? One was from her. It said:
Bad news from the colonoscopy this morning. It is cancer. Not up to talking right now.I just sat there staring at my phone. Cancer? I thought, "She can't have cancer because I didn't even know this was a possibility." It wasn't on my radar screen at all. I didn't know the colonoscopy was to rule out cancer. She's only 45.
While I was snowed out of Atlanta that week, she was getting prepped for surgery, fast. When I finally talked to her, the day before her operation, she sounded upbeat, surprisingly so. I recognized her state of mind as that dazed, not-too-down, busy feeling you get when you're dealing with a new diagnosis, trying to learn everything, and getting ready for surgery. The mind is an amazing thing. There's something about all the activity that insulates you from the fear, at first. But she told me a couple of things that gave me a feeling of foreboding. The surgeon thought a couple of her lymph nodes looked like they might be involved, and there was a suspicious spot on her liver.
I got a sinking feeling as she told me that. It sounded to me like we were talking about Stage III disease, right out of the gate. I did a bunch of googling "colon cancer staging" and "colon cancer prognosis by stage" and sunk even further. I just thought, "How could it have gotten this bad without her knowing?" It brought up a lot of my own anxieties about cancer and about how, with breast cancer anyway, once you cross over into metastatic disease, you are no longer "curable." I thought about how your life can change in one minute. I felt miserable and scared for her.
I didn't blog any of this because the situation wasn't really stable, and it all felt too raw. I thought about how my blog name for her, "Normal Neighbor," doesn't do justice to what a sweet and reliable friend she is.
She had surgery four days after her diagnosis, while I was still out west. They found two cancerous lymph nodes and took a biopsy of her liver. By the time I made my way home, she was almost out of the hospital. She felt better than before the surgery, now that the large tumor in her colon wasn't making her sick. And what's more, she and her husband seemed happy, relieved she came through the surgery, and optimistic.
I said to Matt, in so many words, that I didn't understand why they were in such a good mood. He said, "You mean you think they're in denial?" I said I didn't think they were in denial, but it was like they had reached some advanced state of acceptance and serenity, way, way fast. I told him that I didn't want to be the friend who shows up at your house and says, "Don't you realize how serious this is?" He agreed that I should not be that person. He said that he thinks of them as "here and now" people, and that they're just focused on getting her good care.
And in the last couple of weeks, it's funny: talking to her and hearing that she is not in despair and torn up with anxiety, that she feels her treatments will work and she will be fine, it has made me believe it. She will start chemotherapy on Valentine's Day, and apparently it's not the kind that makes your hair fall out, which is good. But I was ready to speed over there with my wig, Codi. You know I was.
I thought about that Stephen Jay Gould essay about survival statistics, "The Median Isn't the Message." That's worth a read if you don't know it. And I remembered what one of you sweet blog friends told me when I was agonizing over my own cancer staging and prognosis: Even if you're facing something with a one percent survival rate, there is no reason to think that you won't make it into that one percent. Indeed, it's hard to live any other way.
So I am still just shocked about this turn of events. Fucking cancer, I swear. I felt the need to tell you guys because it's definitely something going on in my life and my 'hood, and this is where I talk about that stuff. But I am hopeful, I really am.
Let's be alert to our bodies, but without being anxious and freaked out. I'm trying to strike that balance. And let's be thankful for every day we have health.