I am married to someone I’ve known since I was an awkward freshman in high school.
We bonded over sitting in the same row in Sister Geneva’s English class and our mutual affection for Chuck Taylor high tops.
I’m obliged to tell you at this point that we did not date until after college, although once in our senior collegiate year I asked if he’d ever thought about dating me.
He said no.
In retrospect, I don’t think that was true, but at some point he clearly changed his mind.
Love isn’t flashy all the time.
There are many ordinary moments I have forgotten over the past 22+ years. That makes me sad.
Our story includes moving five times for my work and many years of waiting to get to the next step, whether it was residency, fellowship, my first “real job” as an attending or some other nebulous goal that was just ever-so-slightly beyond the horizon.
Cancer was a new reckoning.
We’d been through so much already.
But love showed up – mightily- when I asked My Ever Patient Spouse to shave my head one step ahead of the chemo this past spring.
Months and months later, my hair started to grow back.
Regretfully, no one informed me that I was developing a mullet and it wasn’t until I looked at the back of my head for the first time that I realized I needed a barber NOW.
Once again, I enlisted him into action.
He gently buzzed my head again, but this time, not to scalp. It was just to neaten the edges. I think he did a pretty good job, even if the above photo doesn’t do it justice.
Life is crawling back to some state of recognition.
I work full time.
I slather my eyebrows and eyelashes with an expensive growth serum and I think I am seeing progress.
I still overeat M&Ms on occasion.
Two things this week, though, sent me spiraling back to thoughts of dying – promptly – from cancer.
The first: Last weekend, I discovered a lump in my left armpit.
The left is my cancer side.
Trigger feelings of doom.
I am in a cancer group where the members regularly commiserate on post-cancer life, where every lump/bump/ache/pain immediately magnifies the tiny, constant worry that cancer has returned.
The lump is soft, mobile and slightly tender. All good signs for it being benign.
Rationally, I know it’s probably nothing. The most likely scenario is a slightly irritated lymph node from the friction sustained from my increased running.
But it nagged me all weekend.
Monday morning, I called my oncologist, just to be sure.
They took it very seriously and to my surprise, I found myself in her office less than two hours later.
I struggled to find the lump as she examined me (Good). It was not very impressive when I did (Good).
She decided to get imaging to be safe (Good plan), but the Worry Train had already left the station.
The second trigger: A song.
Specifically, “Our House,” by Madness.
This 80s tune brings back fond memories, although they’re from 2000, not 1983.
In the fall of 2000 I was a fourth year medical student, interviewing for OBGYN residency positions and traveling around the country for half of November and most of December.
In theory this is a stressful time, as getting into a good residency is a critical step for the future, the interviews can be intense with a lot of official and unofficial vetting going on, and most students (me) were traveling on borrowed student loan dollars and a shoestring budget.
I loved it.
Rushing to the airport, the red eye flights, the dodgy hotels, the pre-interview parties at resident’s homes, the early mornings, the tough questions – this is an environment in which I thrive.
I was so proud of my interview outfit. I had a charcoal gray skirt suit from Ann Taylor that I wore with a crystal blue silk turtleneck sweater and pearl stud earrings. I had the foresight to buy two sweaters so I could rotate them on trips with multiple interviews. I topped the look with a soft black trench from Talbot’s. At this point in my career I would dress for an interview with a lot more style, but at the time I felt like I’d found a respectable uniform.
I also had a soundtrack.
This was in the days of primitive file sharing, Napster and CDs. I had a mix CD – the late 1990s version of a mixed tape – that was filled with 80s and 90s hits, including “Our House.” I listened to that CD countless times in my travels and hearing the songs can send me right back to those moments.
Except yesterday, “Our House” sent me somewhere else.
The weather was perfect for a run yesterday afternoon, and my canine companion (Penny) and I were crossing the last bridge before home when this song came on.
The song reminisces about a happy childhood, yet these are the lyrics that got me:
“Father gets up late for work
Mother has to iron his shirt
Then she sends the kids to school
Sees them off with a small kiss
She’s the one they’re going to miss in lots of ways.”
She’s the one they’re going to miss in lots of ways.
I was flooded with thoughts about dying, loss and my children, and unfortunately, no amount of running seems to be able to tamp them down.
Survivorship is such a struggle, but I hope that I will continue to be a Survivor for a long, long time and eventually I will find peace with post-Cancer life.
Hopefully, the triggers will be fewer and farther between.