I Have a Pamphlet for That

This post is out of order as I’m just starting to process my experiences from the start of my cancer journey.

I’m sitting in a small hospital examination room with my husband and four month old daughter waiting for my “welcome and introduction to surgery” appointment. Our daughter has joined us because my diagnosis of cancer is only a week old and it has left us in total shock. As a result, we haven’t had a chance to utilize our support network and find her alternative care.

Although today is not the day of surgery, I’m still scared out of my whits. The appointment is supposed to take four hours, during which I will be poked, prodded and educated. At thirty-five with a toddler and a brand new baby, this was not in my life plan. Until now I have always been fairly healthy. I’m the one in my family, that holds everyone together whenever a medical emergency happens. Even with the birth of two children I have never been a patient at a hospital. Well that is, if you don’t count that two day stint in my twenties where I was hospitalized with mono from kissing some guy I hardly knew.

As my husband and I are are trying our best to distract ourselves with a movie we rented on our IPad, a male nurse walks into the room. He’s wearing blue hospital scrubs and seems to have a kind gentle face. He sits down at a computer and begins to ask me questions. He must know that I’m scared because in a soft middle eastern accent he reassures me, “you’ll be fine, the procedure is very minor. You won’t even need to stay in the hospital overnight…. you will be just fine.” I am only slightly comforted. In a previous meeting with the surgeon I was told that women usually find a lumpectomy mentally invasive rather than physically. The nurse smiles warmly and leaves the room, declaring that he will be followed by several other visitors. I feel a little bit like Scrooge without the night cap.

My husband and I focus back on the movie. I have no idea what its about. I’m not even sure if its a romantic comedy or an action film. My husband and I are are doing our best to live in the moment. We are attempting to keep our minds from wandering out to the deep crevasse of cancer unknowns that seems to lurk everywhere. I am currently fixated on my surgery fears. I can’t help but picturing myself being wheeled into the operating room holding my husbands hand wearing a blue hair net, gown, and booties. In my imagination our parting is very dramatic, full of tears, declarations of love and reaching for each other. As they wheel me into the brightly lit operating room I imagine it will be cold, alien, clinical and very lonely. What will it be like to be anaesthetized? Will the doctors wear masks and those magnifying glasses you see on tv? Will you be able to see the doctors faces? Will everyone in the room know that I’m a person not just an object to be fixed? Will there be music?

Over the next hour I have my blood, blood pressure and temperature taken. Ian and Maelle are told to leave the room when its time for an EKG, not for privacy but because there is no space in the tiny examination room for myself, the EKG machine, a technician, a stroller, my daughter and my husband. The technician leaves and the door to the room is left open. I look across to the adjacent room and lock eyes with an older woman. She has her daughter with her and they seem concerned but strong. My smile is returned by both women. My husband enters the room with my daughter and the copious amounts of baby paraphernalia that we have brought to entertain her.

As my husband is attempting to reorganize and settle himself, a middle aged Italian nurse enters the room. She asks me a couple questions and tells me that it is her job to explain the procedure. “Before I start with all that, I would like to talk to you woman to woman.” She reaches out and takes a firm grip of my hand. Looking directly into my eyes she begins her very passionate pep talk, never once taking her eyes from mine. Its all I can do to hold it together. I feel vulnerable, awkward and helpless. Not because of her speech but this is the first time I’ve had to talk about my diagnosis and future with someone I don’t know. I don’t say much as she compels me to fight, tells me how much I have to live for and what a strong person I am. As this is the ‘information session’ my husband is supposed to take notes. I can see him looking down at his pen and paper writing furiously.

The nurse lists off some books I should read and leaves the rooms for some pamphlets. I numbly look to my husband not sure of what to say or do. The nurse returns and goes through the twenty plus pamphlets she has deemed appropriate for my situation. Some are photocopied magazine articles about young women and breast cancer, some are pamphlets for supports groups and services, others describe medical procedures that I may need to have. She seems to have a pamphlet for everything.

Our final visitor is the anesthesiologist. He is my age and beautiful in an unexpected way. Its not really physical beauty, although he is attractive. Its more that he has the type of personality that makes you feel calm and safe immediately. After the intensity of the last nurse this is exactly what I need. He looks calmly at me and asks about the medications I’m on. I clumsily spill them out of my bag onto the desk. He smiles and asks me how long I’ve been taking various supplements. I confess that most of them I’ve been taking for only a couple days. Upon hearing I had breast cancer I quickly headed to my nearest health food store and bought a variety of natural supplements. He tells me to stop taking them and that they can lead to clotting problems. I grin, seeing the humour in the moment, what I have thought to be healing is actually causing harm. He patiently explains what it will feel like to be put under.

I divulge my fears about having a tube put down my throat to help me breath. He convinces me that I wont even be aware of it and it will be out before I am fully conscious. For the first time in weeks I feel reassured. “And since you have this” he notes holding a pill bottle of anxiety sleeping drugs my family doctor has prescribed for me, ” take a half of one just before you come to the hospital. It will make things feel much less stressful.” In one quick sweep he has taken me from feeling like a patient to a human being, gently accepting me with all my anxiety, fears and vulnerability.

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