A week before my surgery, I went alone to Grady Hospital to go over my surgery preparation, undergo a physical examination, and meet with both a occupational therapist and a breast health nurse. Dressed to go to work immediately after the visit, I got to the hospital before 8 a.m. A nurse reviewed all of the things I would need to do or not do prior to my surgery. They took a blood draw to check my hemoglobin count (crap! I thought, because I know I’m anemic). A random doctor did a brief physical examination and concluded with her sweet Indian accent , “Well, Miss, it looks like you are healthy.”
The occupational therapist met with me to review all of the exercises I would need to do post-surgery, followed by a meeting with the breast health nurse. Sitting behind her desk framed in an oversize pink ribbon quilt, she handed me books, pamphlets, pink tote bags, pink bandannas and various assorted other gifts I did not know if I wanted or not, but took anyway. She told me how strong I was, how brave, how I was not alone in this. I sat there feeling numb, thinking that I was supposed to be crying or something. “Ugh! I just wish I could write you a note so you didn’t have to go to work today!”
No! I can’t sit at home all day thinking about cancer and surgery risks. I want to go to work. I need to.
She hugged me before I left her office. I awkwardly hugged her back, quietly thinking that I would probably never see her again. I had no intention of pursuing any support groups or anything like that. She was on vacation the day of my surgery, so another nurse would drop off my bag of post-surgery goodies and freebies. She walked me to the elevator, and as we rounded a corner, there was Dr. F. And despite my polite manner with all the people I’d met with, it was my first genuine smile of the day. In a weeks time, I was going to voluntarily undergo a brutal mutilation to my body. But in that moment, I knew intuitively that I was absolutely doing the right thing with a doctor who would do the best job he could for me. I felt a calmness, an acceptance in that moment. And thank god for that moment, because while I don’t have a clue what it was we made small-talk about standing there by the elevators, I will always remember that feeling of calmness and acceptance. In the following week, I reached for that moment again and again when the anxiety and fear threatened to overwhelm me.
My surgery was scheduled for Friday, and I worked the day before until 4:30 slowly preparing my out of office reply, recording an out of office voicemail, forwarding my phone, and tidying up my desk. The day had gone fine. We were busy and it seemed just like any other day. I had not told anyone except my immediate boss about what was going on. It was not a secret, however, I did not want to volunteer my situation to my coworkers. I did not want to be treated differently. The normalcy of my work life saved my sanity, like a protective cocoon where my cancer had not become the number 1 topic of conversation. But as I reluctantly left that day and walked to my car, I began to cry. I realized that I had put off leaving because as long as I was at work, it wasn’t time yet, I was safe. Leaving work meant that I was one step closer to both losing my breast and more importantly, receiving the results of my lymph node biopsy which would determine if the cancer had spread into other areas of my body. I gave myself a moment in my car to just cry, sitting in the empty parking lot.