After you're diagnosed with cancer, time is the enemy and a gift

After you're diagnosed with cancer, time is the enemy and a gift

Time changes after you’re diagnosed with cancer. You lose the ability to imagine or to plan the future. The present is so suffocating that you can’t remember what it felt like before diagnosis. Time is the enemy at the very same time that it is a gift.

“You have a tumor, and it’s cancerous” remakes the world into a radical and oppressive “now.” It’s like sliding into an MRI machine. You see only what is in front of your face, that which is inches away. There is no peripheral vision. There is no turning your head away.

The noise is random, without an apparent source. It encases you, thumping out, “Cancer. Cancer. Cancer.”

You do not move. You hear a voice in the earphones telling you that everything is fine. But you know that’s a lie.

Then time stretches out, like the hallway in “The Shining,” while you wait for the pathology results. You feel like you’re moving forward, getting closer to the phone call. You run but the hall keeps getting longer.

Every time the phone rings, you freeze, stop breathing. When the call finally comes, the voice is distorted. You can hear “Stage One” but you can’t make out what else he’s saying.

Then life is punctuated by appointments. Tuesday is a CT scan at 10. Thursday is an ultrasound.

Every appointment is preceded by dread and anxiety. Time is defined by directions. Don’t drink or eat after midnight. Drink 20 ounces of water an hour and a half before the scan. It seems every night is the night before and every day is the day of, and the results never come.

When you learned you had cancer, you couldn’t help but wonder whether you’d still be alive when “Breaking Bad” finally returned to television. Will you see your daughter graduate from high school?

And, then, the waiting room eats away at whatever time you have left. It’s not just an irritation to wait. It is a significant period of time among strangers who see the doctor before you despite having arrived after you. You spend more time some days with office staff, techs, and docs than with your family.

The smells–old carpet and disinfectant– make you forget about the smell of bread baking and coffee brewing. The easy listening version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” seems on eternal repeat.

Time doesn’t matter to the waiting room. You are, after all, waiting for THE DOCTOR. You are no more important than the other dozen sick people in the room who are reading Golf Digest from January 2010.

Time is not egalitarian. Pains slows the clock down. Tiredness steals hours and days. The second hand gets stuck as you re-live being told it’s cancer.

And then slowly time starts beating out regular ticks. You realize one afternoon that when you woke up that morning you did not say to yourself, “I have cancer” as you walked to the shower.

Peripheral vision returns, and you notice that the person sitting next to you in your support group is really frightened. The person across from you is losing weight, a little each week. Another has a full head of hair, bright cheeks, and a spring in her step. The people around you cry, but they also laugh.

The future seems possible as you listen to your daughter and her friend make plans to live together in England after they graduate from high school. You remember your first year in college and learning to live with a roommate.

You sit in the sun and you remember Tom Waits’ song, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring.” You wear a tank top and feel hot for the first time in months and you try to get a bit of a sunburn even though you know it increases your chance of getting skin cancer.

You Can Never Hold Back Spring

You remember your friend who died of cancer when she was young and know she felt some of these things in another place and time. You can’t hold back winter, either.

You post on Facebook, answering one of those stupid questionnaires, that your greatest fear is not having time enough to do everything you want to do. You start making lists and making changes.

And then you run across an appointment card for your next scan. It’s in July. You still have six weeks before the dread starts to build again.


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