I had an appointment with my oncologist, Dr. Dana Zakalik, this past Monday, 11 a.m. Don was by my side. We sat in the waiting room for nearly two hours, as they were running behind schedule. And I sobbed the whole time. I couldn’t help myself.
I tried to stop. A nurse came out and handed me my own personal box of tissues. I used them. I kept crying.
There was this beautiful, terrible visual that kept running through my head that I just couldn’t banish. It was of the Sunday before last, when Theo and I attended Frog Watch, USA at the Detroit Zoo. The day was chilly, but sunny and bright, clear blue skies stretched from one end to the other. As he and I walked the path between buildings, he reached up and clasped his hand in mine.
He had no idea just how adorable he was at that moment. His down-filled winter coat is the color of Christmas, and he was wearing his favorite mittens — the ones Grandma Neilson had made for him, in safety orange, just as he had requested. There we were, walking from the Amphibian House en route to the Butterfly Garden, Theo chattering away about frogs and toads and how he hoped to see a hummingbird.
I looked at him at that moment and I thought to myself, “He is so innocent. He has no idea what’s going on inside Mommy, how perilously close I could be to leaving him, despite how desperately I want to stay with him.”
He knows as much about what’s going on as a five-year-old can. He knows Mommy has to go to the hospital pretty often and that sometimes, I don’t feel well and I have to take a nap or go to bed very early. But he also sees that, for the most part, I’m every bit the Mommy I’ve ever been. The one who picks him up from school, speaks to his class about Amphibians, curls up in bed with him to read a book before lights out.
It was that picture of that moment at the Zoo that triggered my non-stop tears in the waiting room. I couldn’t push that image of Theo out of my mind’s eye. I was consumed by his innocence, my heart breaking at the thought of leaving him too soon, of the pain that it would cause him.
Monday’s appointment would be the first time Dr. Zakalik had seen me in the Examining Room since that day back in early January when I came in with “the lump” I’d found squeezed between my left breast implant and fake, reconstructed nipple. I have seen her in the Infusion Center — she stops by. And I’ve seen members of her team. But this was the first time we’d met behind closed doors since January 10.
She pulled up my shirt, had me lean back, stretched a pair of examination gloves on over her hands, and felt my breasts. She had a quizzical expression on her face as she returned to her stool. She looked at her computer, then started flipping through my chart.
“Did Dr. Dekhne (my breast care surgeon) remove that lump?” she asked me. “Wasn’t that just a core biopsy you had?”
At first, I panicked, as the horrible thought that she might have forgotten a couple of the details of my case flashed through my head. But that’s not at all like Dr. Zakalik. She is nothing short of a marvel.
That’s when I realized what she was really asking me. Why she was so perplexed. Taken aback.
At the exact same moment, she looked back at me, and a smile spread across her face. “Wait a minute, Missy! Lean back on that examining table again!”
Dr. Z. pulled on her examination gloves once more, and felt my left breast.
When I saw her in January, the lump that had brought us in to the office was rock hard and the size of a large shooter marble. Within 10 days, I felt two smaller lumps starting on the other side of my nipple –each about the size of a baby fingertip. That’s how fast this aggressive form of genetic cancer spreads.
Today, this day, March 14, 2011, the two small lumps were gone and she had trouble finding the big one that had brought me here in the first place just two months ago! “It’s not only a great deal smaller,” she said,” but it’s also a lot softer.”
This physical exam indicates that the chemo is kicking butt. WE ARE KICKING CANCER IN THE ASS! After just two rounds of chemo — 8 treatments — this kind of progress was completely unexpected.
Dr. Z. then listened to my lungs, resting her cold stethoscope on five different places on my back. I breathed in deeply, then out, repeat. Her words? “Clear as a bell.” My lungs — both of which had showed cancer on the initial scans — sounded GREAT!
What does this mean? Well, though it’s just the physical exam of my progress, it is GREAT news! It means we are headed in the right direction, that the chemo cocktail I’m on is doing its job! To verify what appears to be amazing progress, I will have a full body scan the week of March 28, the first one since before I started chemo Feb. 1.
I will be hanging on the edge of my seat for those results, as it will be a true picture — literally and figuratively — of just how much my cancer has receded. But Don and I — all of us, friends, family — we are THRILLED by this news!
Along with that, Dr. Z. asked me how I was feeling, overall. This is another very important piece of the puzzle.
I told her the truth. I am feeling GREAT! Do I have my moments when I’m not feeling so hot? Of course. Chemo is no picnic. But I am astounded at the amount of energy I have once the initial side-effects of the infusions wear off. I do have to sleep more at night — I’m going to bed with Theo around 9 p.m. And I do need a nap in the afternoon.
But, oh, as Dr. Suess would say, the things I can do!!!!!! Race my kid to the backyard playscape, go to Mickey D’s with Don and Theo and wonder which toy Theo’s going to get in his Happy Meal, go for a walk and breathe in fresh, beautiful air, turn in circles, close my eyes, feel the sun shine on my face. Wriggle my toes in the sand, talk to an astronaut from space, learn how to make (and eat!) the world’s best guacamole dip, sit in a hot tub and take in the wonder of the stars, the bright light of Venus. Above all, love love love my family, friends, my life.
We celebrated the news in a way that only Don, Theo and I can. After we picked Theo up from school Monday afternoon, we headed straight for the House of Pets in Garden City. How I love that place! And wouldn’t you know it, they had three healthy red-eyed tree frogs — just in! We had been waiting for a few months to get our hands on these beauties! The ones that had come in over the winter weren’t looking very healthy. So, we waited.
What are the chances that on this day, at this moment, there they’d be? We took two of them home. A really big one that I named Goliath. I call him Golly for short — as in golly, are you ever big! And a smaller one that I’ve decided to call Red. They are delightful and intriguing and such a wonder of God’s creation.
We did the Mickey D’s drive-thru on the way home for Don and Theo. No appetite for me. But…a craving for a gigantic slurpee. So, Don did a second drive-thru, Burger King — and got me a large frozen Coke. Such special treatment. Such a special guy. Such a great way to end a great day, Theo and Don munching on chicken nuggets, me happily slurping my frozen Coke. And signs of Spring, of Hope, all around us.
Copyright 2011, Amy Rauch Neilson