Today I saw my cancer, literally.
I had gone to the hospital to get copies of my medical records for a second opinion appointment that is coming up shortly. I was directed to go to the basement of the hospital to the Health information Office which in turn sent me to the Pathology department. I marched down through a maze of long, unending hallways with blank walls and glossy floors.
The pathology office was unusually cold and quiet, as if it is ever ready to preserve things , with a grey haired lady at the desk listening to music with headphones on. It’s one of those areas of the hospital that usually devoid of patient contact and doesn’t involve listening very much, hidden and tucked away. She acknowledged me by taking one of the ear buds out as I waved the release of information form at her. She, momentarily ditched her inertia and stood up. What happened next was something I was completely unprepared for.
She opened a clunky steel cabinet and start to take out slides and systematically and swiftly setting them in a tray. Slides with little pink blotches on them and a label that had my name and date of birth on it. It took me a little while to realize I was looking at my cancer, literally. The ironically pink stain on the cancer cells was staring back at me. I was dazed, maybe I even stopped blinking for a while.
Under those little square slide covers are cells, cells from my body, my breast. These are the cells that changed my life last year. The glass pieces with tiny rogue cells on them separated me from the non-cancer world.Last year these slides defined my life trajectory and perhaps my ultimate fate. The voice of the breast surgeon reverberated in my ears, his voice and the disappointed tone about poorly differentiated cells while my life was flashing in front of my eyes. Those are the cells that once were loyal to me until the betrayal called “cancer.”
She was mechanical and precise, setting them in multiple trays and I was trying hard to hold my tears back. The room got colder and air thicker. Basements of hospitals are like that. Morgues in the hospitals usually live in the basement too. She asked me for my ID, to ensure if I was, indeed, the rightful owner of this cancer. I so wished I wasn’t. She then put in a little box some slivers of my being and carefully positioned the box in a bubble wrap envelope. I collected the envelope and held it to my chest unwittingly on the left side. The bubble wrap touched the breast prosthesis and once those two surfaces came in contact, it felt eerie and wrong. I immediately separated that envelope from my body. It once belonged there, that tissue but not anymore. I held the envelope away as much as I could as if those slides were laced with Ebola.
Even though I have repeated this statement often in the last year,”I have faced cancer” seeing the actual tissue with your own eyes is a profound experience. It makes you suddenly face the fragility of life in a very concrete way…life is much more fragile than the glass slides or their covers. Life that one holds so valuable is one rogue cell away from collapsing like a house of cards. I wonder how humans can be so easily deluded by life and ignore the end. What makes death such an uncomfortable topic?
As a physician, I have seen my share of death and dying. I have counseled terminal patients and I have dealt with suicidal attempts. Life is separated from death by seconds. Yet, we all avoid thinking about it. We spend most of our lives avoiding this subject and many choose to never make a will because it uncovers a reality they don’t want to deal with. Cancer however ruthlessly opens this topic up for life. This is what makes a cancer survivor psychologically tough and resilient.
Survivors are unique because they have had the death conversation with themselves and others. It is not surprising therefore that cancer ends up being such a spiritual experience since it performs the exorcism of demons of death and dying.
My fear of death has dissipated too. It’s a possibility that I think about every day. Unfortunately, if I attempt to open this topic with a friend or a loved one, I usually get cut off by them insisting that I will live a long and healthy life. I understand that when they interrupt me, it isn’t about me but their own anxiety about this topic. I sometimes wish someone would talk to me about what death will be like and what I imagine what my end would be. A conversation that is much closer to my heart than any other topic, deep and soulful.
In my opinion this unmet desire is what makes cancer survivors connect with each other as we share this hidden bond. Cancer has liberated us, we are free, we are free to talk about our lives and equally free to talk about our death.