Updated: Jul 7
The most excruciating part of the diagnosis is the time ‘in between’
The time in between, the waiting, gets forgotten when you’re telling someone a story, like it wasn’t the main event at all.
Two ‘main event stories’ in my life that I tell go something like this: My parents were in a car accident and my mom died and then my dad went into a coma and then he died and then we lived with cousins but that didn’t work out so then we moved in with an aunt and uncle and their five kids and then…
I found a lump in my right breast, I got tested, it was cancer, I had a mastectomy and then I was told I also had Leukemia and then they said I didn’t, not really, and then I had radiation for the breast cancer and then I was a survivor…
I never mention all the waiting. It’s always there, tangled in and out and through life. Usually, it’s the worst part of it all.
Waiting is hard.
Sometimes waiting produces the best of things — a newly born babe, the burst of peony blossoms in late spring, that concert you’ve been desperate to go to with the tickets you bought last year. Often it seems as though a gift is what comes at the end of all the waiting — the cherished baby all snuggled up, the vibrant flowers in a vase on the table, the buzz and electricity every second at that concert. But in waiting things are borne, created, realized.
Each time I waited for my babies, I went through nine months of elation and stress and worry and tests and changing my diet and nesting and so much more. And my body was doing the incomprehensible work of growing a human, slowly and perfectly, as only a woman’s body can do.
A peony bush can take three years to blossom. After planting the bush carefully in my backyard, I waited for the delicate blooms to emerge. For all those months and years, the shrub gathered nourishment through its leaves, its roots pushing deeper into the soil. On its own precious timeline, it began forming small buds into what would become the most glorious of flowers.
And depending on the celebrity or the artist, a concert can be years in the making. My daughter just saw Taylor Swift in Nashville. You can bet the preparation that went into that spectacle was intricate, worked and re-worked until everything hummed seamlessly into place.
Sometimes waiting is excruciating— six weeks of waiting to see if my dad would make it out of his coma; waiting and hoping and waiting and hoping to become pregnant for a child you so long to love; and walking through illness, yours or someone you care for.
That’s where I’m at today.
I had my annual mammogram a month ago. I had a mammogram at the same time last year. I’d felt a lump.
I waited for the results. Instead of results, I was asked to come back in for another mammogram and ultrasound.
I waited a month for that second visit.
Then I had to wait a week for a biopsy. And one more week to hear the surgeon tell me that, yes, it most certainly was cancer, and yes, I should definitely have my breast removed.
If removing a lifelong appendage wasn’t life-altering enough, I had to wait to find out what stage of cancer, and how much havoc it had wracked. Had it already moved through my body? I wouldn’t find out the stage until after the mastectomy, so another two months down the road.
I waited for results from a bone scan, then for results from more biopsies, then a CT scan, then an MRI. All the time waiting for the next ‘all clear’ or ‘we’ll have to re-look at this’. I met with the oncologist, the radiologist, the plastic surgeon, the general surgeon. I had conversations with a naturopath and many more with my GP. I’d hardly stepped foot in a doctor’s office so this was a whole new whirlwind for me, both the flurry of appointments and the waiting.
Waiting, waiting, waiting.
The brain wants to know now. Right now.
We have no time for down the road.
But down the road is where you’re headed when dealing with illness whether your tank is full or not.
As luck or the lack of luck would have it, I had my first ever bout of poison ivy exactly when I was diagnosed with cancer. It was so bad that my GP gasped when she looked down at the translucent blisters trailing their way up and down my legs, ankles and tops of my feet.
It was late May/early June. I couldn’t go in the sun because of it. I couldn’t put pants on because of the pus coming from the blisters and the cream slathered on top of them.
No walks. No gardening. Two of my favourite things. Those days were a parched, lonely desert for me.
When I most needed the healing power of tucking cute baby cucumber plants into the soil, weeding the beds, and tossing zinnia seeds amongst the veggies, I was stuck in the shade staring at and trying not to itch my legs.
And wondering if I’d be alive to plant the next year’s vegetables. With all the research and advancements in treatments, they say that if you’re going to get cancer, breast cancer is the ‘one to get’.
But when you’re waiting, research and advancements don’t matter.
Because you’re waiting.
And you don’t know.
And your brain plays its little game of ping pong:
I’ll be fine, so many women get breast cancer and come through ok.
Hmm, but my friend’s sister didn’t. She was so young and had two little kids.
It’ll probably just be a really crummy year with all the things…surgery, radiation, chemo. And then I’ll be fine.
I’ll be fine.
But what if I’m not?
I’ll go on the Mediterranean diet, exercise more and get all the supplements. I’ll be fine.
Hmm, so did that colleague of my husband’s. She was a marathon runner in tip-top shape. She should have been fine.
I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I’ll be FINE.
I had to wait. And then wait a little more.
It was a time of heaving sobs, hopeless whispers, being cared for by the kids I was supposed to care for.
How did I bear through all the waiting? Journalling, praying, sitting in the shade reading and listening to the birds having a grand ol’ time all around me.
I had so many conversations with amazing friends and family. Their caring hearts were tangible.
What happened to me in the waiting? I was loved.
I was sent oodles of flowers, fruit baskets, meals upon meals upon meals, books and magazines to read, pajamas, a beautiful quilt and a blueberry bush (blueberries are a great one-two punch in the cancer fight) to plant in my garden (once the blisters had all dried up).
So many thoughtful friends waiting for news and believing in recovery with me.
The ping pong game my brain tried to play with anxious thoughts and scenarios subsided as words from so many washed over me. Words of comfort and acts of kindness made the waiting easier.
I found myself wondering why we don’t reach out to let people know what we really think about them more often (I wrote a bit about that here). Why do we hold off until we think we might lose them?
People’s words made my waiting easier.
I finished treatment for breast cancer in December of last year and I’ve been feeling great and am so ready to move on.
My annual mammogram on my now lone breast was a month ago. I didn’t expect to hear anything back.
But I did hear something back. They want me back again for another mammogram and an ultrasound.
They’re just being careful because of last year.
There’s no lump in this breast, I’ll be fine.
Lots of women are called back for a second mammogram and ultrasound. Seriously, I’ll be fine.
But this time I’m also waiting for the blueberry bush to explode in fruit in the garden that lay dormant last year.
And my legs are blister-less and poison ivy free.
And I have written words of comfort all around me.
I’m waiting again.
I’ll be fine.