Pop culture and Wikipedia defines a “Meet-Cute” as a scene in film, television, etc. in which a future romantic couple meets for the first time in a way that is considered adorable, entertaining, or amusing.This type of scene is a staple of romantic comedies, commonly involving contrived, unusual, or comic circumstances. The technique creates an artificial situation to bring together characters in a theoretically entertaining manner. Frequently the meet-cute leads to a humorous clash of personalities or beliefs, embarrassing situations, or comical misunderstandings that further drive the plot (Wikipedia).
In my mind my meet-cute with a doctor was an accidental meeting after a generic appointment where we instantaneously had chemistry as a result of our witty banter and we rode off into the sunset on a gurney… or something like that. It certainly didn’t involve scheduling appointments with multiple oncologists and rounding up a team of doctors who prescribe treatments and essentially dictate my life over the course of months and maybe even years. As a confirmed commitment phobe, it all seemed a little fast. I was essentially entering a long term relationship after an initial meet (not so) cute. Where was the courtship and jewelry? Instead I got new patient information packets to fill out and a handy card allowing me access to my information and let’s not forget the hospital bracelets signifying my new relationship status. They really wanted everyone to know we were committed too, I got a new bracelet at every single appointment. Now how could I say no to that?
I have to admit that I was skeptical of finding an oncologist that would be best suited for me, but I was very fortunate and found two. Now I don’t want you to think I intended to or willingly entered into a poly-amorous relationship or anything, it just so happened that my first and second opinion oncologists were willing to work together to help me fight my Stage II (possibly bulky) Classical Hodgkins Lymphoma (Nodular Sclerosis). One was a long distance relationship with one of the best cancer centers in the US and the other had easier access being much closer to home. As long as they are in 100% agreement so am I. I leave the majority of the decisions up to them. In a lot of ways there is a lot less stress when you never have to choose where to go for dinner or what movie to go see or in this case when my appointments are and what treatment I will be receiving.
So while I didn’t quite get my Hollywood meet cute I got a medical meet cute that works for me. My close to home oncologist – Dr. Z – is in fact perfect for me or at least that is what I tell people when they ask what I think of him. Not only is he a phenomenal doctor, ridiculously knowledgeable, compassionate, and empathetic he is also sarcastic and humorous. Qualities that I cannot live without, especially if we are committed to seeing each other for a minimum of five years while we sort out this whole cancer thing.
I can honestly say that after hearing my diagnosis and the Halloween theme song faded out of the picture, the shell shock had already worn off and it was time to tell the masses. So how exactly does one tell their loved ones – family and friends – that they have cancer. My personal approach, just rip off the god damn band-aid. No matter how you phrase it the response is always the same…THE LONG AWKWARD PAUSE. It seemed like I would say the words and there would be radio silence on the other end of the phones for what felt like an eternity or if done in person a blank stare that lasts just long enough for it to be really uncomfortable for all parties involved. I have to admit that I much prefer the Long Awkward Pause to what follows as an encore – tears. I have never been a fan of ‘ugly crying’ myself, so seeing so many people tear up every time they saw me over the next few weeks pretty much made me want to make a break for it or avoid some people all together. I had my one evening of ‘ugly crying’ with some Ben and Jerry’s on the couch and hoped to leave it at that. Crying was not going to change my current situation, if anything it was certainly going to make it worse. So I thus banned my parents and best friend from crying as well. With the ban in place, life could go on until the next person who was unaware of the crying ban heard the news for the first time and went through the usual song and dance. Enter Long Awkward Pause and tears.
Once the masses become aware of the situation it all becomes so much more real and suddenly cancer is actually a part of your life. Now that everyone knows you have cancer the next step is explaining what that looks like. Not so easy, even for a veteran teacher of ten years such as myself. I didn’t have the knowledge to explain it. All I knew was that I had lymphoma. Google it and you get 25, 100, 000 results. Clearly just some light reading to get you started. And a word to the wise, never google what you don’t understand. It led my mom to an emotional breakdown thinking that every single person ever diagnosed with Lymphoma never made it past the five year mark. So sometimes having information at your finger tips is not so helpful and thus I had to ban google as well. Just in time too, because my BFF actually googled what to do when your best friend has cancer. The advice given did however yield some good laughs.
So we’ve all heard the expression that your life can change in an instant, but you don’t really believe that to be true until suddenly it is and your life does. For me, that instant was when I came to the realization that I have cancer. And we all know the word CANCER automatically elicits a fear response, much like the sound track that accompanies any horror movie. Some people even translate it to mean impending death before they even know the details. Thankfully, I was not one of those people but I will admit the faint sound of the Halloween soundtrack was playing somewhere in the back of my mind when I heard my diagnosis for the first time.
I had been waiting for a diagnosis of some kind for nearly six months by then. I had been to my primary care physician countless times and numerous specialists who had no real answers for my nonspecific and generally strange ailments ranging from being too weak to write the notes on the board for my students to the strange painful lumps on both of my shins. I started out anemic and then I had an ulcer and possibly gluten allergy. All of those could have been the root cause of my nondescript symptoms but going gluten free and drinking daily shots of blackstrap molasses for iron didn’t seem to help so I trudged on to more doctors to have more tests and biopsies. My big break came when I ended up at the rheumatologist, another specialist recommended by my GP who was drawing at straws to help me. I lucked out when he examined my shins and determined I had a skin condition known as Erythia Nodosum, which often signifies a more serious condition called Sarcoid.
On a side note, I wish I had been to the rheumatologist a few hours earlier because I had just had another huge chunk of skin on my shin biopsied hours earlier to determine what skin condition I had, but that is beside the point.
My mind was reeling from the very word Sarcoid, which I’m pretty sure I saw on House a few seasons ago and assumed it was a dramatization of sorts. Oddly enough, Sarcoid is real and can be a pretty serious lung disease that often accompanies many of my odd and seemingly disconnected issues. In order to confirm Sarcoid I needed a series of chest x-rays, a CT scan, and pulmonary lung function testing, ultimately followed by a mediastinal biopsy. So at least I knew what two out of four of those things were, so all in all I pretty much had no idea of what to expect. The process was a little more daunting when I received a phone call that I needed to see a Thoracic surgeon ASAP. I wasn’t even sure what a thoracic surgeon was or what his intentions were. Turns out his intentions were to slice open my neck, cut throat style to bipospy the medistinal mass detected by my chest x-ray and CT scan, most likely caused by Sarcoid. I say most likely because at the time there was a ninety five percent likelihood that Sarcoid was the culprit and the biopsy surgery was needed to confirm his guilt.
So imagine my surprise when I came to in recovery only to find out that the real assailant had been overlooked. I remember waking up and feeling a bit disoriented, it actually took me a few moments to focus and actually be literate enough to read the grey exit sign across from my cubicle. It didn’t take long for my parents and best friend to circle the wagons once I was cognitive enough to hold a conversation. As soon as they came into focus I knew something was amiss, their tear soaked faces and deafening silence said it all. They awkwardly stared at me, and when I asked for my status update the panicked exchange between Steph and my mom confirmed my suspicions. No one had to say the words, the five percent possibility of cancer was my one hundred percent reality. Minutes later my thoracic surgeon arrived on the scene and delivered the verdict – Lymphoma. Blood cancer. I asked if he was 100% sure and he said that he was. I may have taken pause for a moment before asking him what happened next. He didn’t have any details just yet and told me that an oncologist would be in touch. And then he walked away, leaving me to digest the news and some graham crackers because at that point I was starving (you can’t eat prior to surgery).