July 7, 2016

Five years: The waiting room

Waiting rooms in cancer hospitals are strange places. We patients sit side-by-side during these deeply private moments, stripped to our underwear, wearing gowns that never conceal enough flesh, mostly in silence.

It’s never clear whether people want to talk, or what emotional confrontation is playing out in that intimate space behind their eyes.

So as you wait, you wonder. What does he have? Why does she look so sad? What happened to their leg?

When our names are called, we complete our scan and return for observation. Those faces and bodies are gone, replaced by different silent people.

At my most recent scan, I only talked to one other patient. The older man with silver hair and soft features rejected Hello!, OK and Marie Claire, and settled on Australian Geographic. I was reading the only other Australian Geographic magazine, and this meant we had things we could talk about.

He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer seven years earlier, and had his prostate and its cancer successfully removed. Last month a routine blood test showed the cancer was back and a scan revealed secondary tumours in his spine and hip. He had just finished a fancy radiation treatment that fired ultra-thin beams of energy specifically at these small tumours. He was having a scan today to see if the radiation had worked.

Early diagnosis. Successful surgery. No cancer, for over seven years.

That’s seven years of normal birthdays, playing with grandchildren, loving his wife, getting annoyed at the weather, groaning about bills – all the normal things that aren’t cancer. And then more cancer.

The medical student in me asked him about the onset of aches or pains in his cancer-riddled bones, and how the tumour markers in his blood had responded to treatment.

The cancer patient in me asked him what it felt like to have cancer again, how he had spent the seven years without cancer, and how he had managed to put it out of his mind and get on with things.

For me, that last question was the most important.

The more time I spend living with ‘no evidence of disease’, the easier it gets. I am safer, statistically, the further I get from my diagnosis, and that brings me comfort. But in the days before this check-up I started to feel something new: a fear of how radically altered my life would be if cancer returned.

Each step closer to physical and psychological normality means you have further to fall should the cancer ever come back. It’s a strange limbo between illness and wellness. The running track towards the healthier and happier version of yourself sometimes evaporates, forcing you to stop and look back.

The distance from the cancer is both reassuring and frightening, but also an illusion. It is reassuring because time and distance mean progress. It is frightening because the thought of ending up back there is almost overwhelming. And it feels illusory because there is no real distance at all, my body is still my body and any residual cancer remains inside it.

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