What To Do Next

“You can’t be serious.”  My mother, her face round and moon like from the months of prednisone, was incredulous at the doctor’s words.  There was hope there, hidden under the layers of antidepressants, the wig, the weight gain and the months of drinking Ensure and eating butterscotch sundaes.

We’d come to the oncologist for her post radiation follow up.   I’d blocked out the day from my substitute teaching schedule but taken Zachary to daycare just as if I’d been working.

“Yes, I am.  This area here is where your primary tumor was.  The tumor, put simply, is either gone, or so small that there is no benefit to removing the small amount of affected lung tissue.  There may be a small area of left, less than 2MM.”

I blinked.  This couldn’t be possible.  After all of these months of black fear, of all the statistics that showed us my mother would be hard pressed to beat this disease, here we were.  “Does that mean she’s in remission?”  I asked the doctor, the unfamiliar word rolling thickly off my tongue.

“Yes, that’s exactly what it means.”  He was guarded, cautious, but also optimistic.

My mother was struggling to process the news.  “I have two rounds of chemo left on the schedule.  If there is really no tumor left, will we do them still?”

The doctor asked her about her symptoms.  She admitted that all of her hair was gone, that she was losing feeling in her hands and feet, that she hardly ate solids any more.

“I think we should stop the chemo at this point then.  There’s likely no great benefit to two more months at this point if the tumor is so small, and the risk is that we could have permanent nerve damage if you’re already feeling numbness in your extremities.”

And just like that, in early September, my mother was done with cancer.   She was going to be able to stop treatment, start to get her strength back, even go back to work in a few weeks if she felt healthy enough.  We both sat in the tiny doctor’s office, unsure of how to react.  This was far better news than either of us had anticipated.

We should have been celebratory.  We should have been ready to go out and make a toast.  But as I slowly walked with my tired mother back to the parking garage, even the trip to the handicapped spot put her out of breath and exhausted.  Her lung capacity was so reduced by the effects of the radiation.

I chuckled to myself as we buckled in and headed for the highway back home.

“What’s so funny?”  my mother asked me, squinting at the late summer sun.

“The day you were diagnosed, you didn’t seem the least bit sick.  The doctor came out and said, ‘Your mother is very sick’, but you didn’t have any symptoms at all.  You seemed perfectly fine.  And here today, the doctor tells us, ‘You are in remission’, as if just like that, you’ll be able to get back to your normal routine.  But you aren’t healthy, even though you’re ‘not sick’.  You need to park in the handicapped spot, you need lots of rest, you have lots of symptoms that make you seem like a sick person.  I guess it just kind of struck me as odd, somehow.”

My mother chuckled too, her gravelly, smoker’s laugh.  “Yeah,” she responded quietly, but a smile was there behind her words.  “There’s irony for you.”

As we drove home that day in early September, the world looked different, somehow.  Like we’d been living in the cancer treatment tunnel all summer and now suddenly, we found ourselves on the other side, in unfamiliar territory. After months of wondering What Will Happen Next, suddenly, we were here, at the goal line.  A place that we were not sure we’d ever get to.

What Will Happen Next had just morphed into What Should We Do Next.  The difference in focus, in control, of having things happen to you versus dictating what should happen to, was huge.

It was everything.

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