Benny turned six last Monday. Many of you know that his tastes run a little—eccentric. Birthday shopping is always an adventure. As opposed to last year’s passions (dinosaurs, cats, Lionel Messi, outboard engines), this year Benny loves: toll booths, praying mantises, dragons, clams, and gemstones. The “recommended picks” on my Amazon account are so confused right now.
We somehow managed to pull off the birthday in spite of all our domestic craziness these days—family festivities, chicken wings, ice cream cake, balloons, a trip to the tollbooth in the parking garage where John works, a party at Celebration Station (and I thought it was chemo that took years off my life!).
During one of the several candle-extinguishing ceremonies of last weekend Benny whispered to me that his birthday wishes had been that he could be a tollbooth operator when he gets older and that my breast would grow back someday without any cancer in it.
I guess from my end, I’m hoping for both of these things (kid with a job, no more cancer) and neither of these things (a less exhaust-filled job, no mutant body parts). But I’m glad these are his wishes. They are a very Benny version of what I would have wished for if they were my candles—the same wish I make every year: that everyone I love will find what makes them happy and that the universe will keep them safe.
Just as we were sitting down to the chicken wing birthday dinner (a lovely night, my mom strong enough to come to the table, the kids happy and excited), my phone rang. It was a Raleigh number—unfamiliar—but I knew immediately who would be on the other end.
Hi Dr. Cavanaugh, I answered after about a half ring.
Several days earlier we had gone to Duke expecting answers and a plan. Unfortunately the tumor board hadn’t met yet and, according to the Queen, Ed the Pathologist hadn’t finishing re-staining the slides. So no answers.
I’ll call you Monday right after the tumor board meets, she’d said—I promise. You don’t have to answer the phone if you don’t want to. You can always just let it go to voicemail and I’ll let you know what we’ve decided.
Clearly this woman doesn’t understand me at all.
She was on her way home from work, she told me when I answered. But she wanted to call because she’d promised.
I could picture her tucked in some cool, pristine luxury sedan gliding along I-40. Un-melted iced coffee in the cup holder. Learn to Speak Ancient Sumerian CDs whirring quietly in the player on pause.
The pathology was back and the tumors were as we’d thought—only maybe not quite as dumb as we’d hoped. The tumor board unanimously recommended that we do another four cycles of chemo—this time with Adriamycin.
And because it turns out a tenth of a millimeter margin isn’t enough to let anyone breathe easy, I will do 6.5 weeks of radiation when the chemo is done.
I was a little disappointed at first. My hair has just started growing back and it’s soft and downy and makes me feel somewhat human again. My eyebrows are coming back, too—although in an incredibly disorganized way, including a few errant eyebrows in some very unexpected places. And I just rejoined the gym! Knowing I am facing more chemo and then radiation makes me feel like I’m hurtling backwards, that I’m that many steps further away from getting back to normal—whatever that is.
But another way to look at it is that I’m being given another chance to shut this thing down. It’s what my mom’s hospice nurse calls my “lucky” (my mom’s Lucky is that opiates don’t make her constipated . . .). We have other things we can do. We don’t have to just sit back and hope for the best—quite yet. So in a weird way I’m relieved. I’m ready to put this behind me, but I’m not ready to be out of treatment, I guess.
One of my very best friends, Eliza, came to visit last week—right after the birthday madness. She went with me to Duke one day to get my latest surgical drain removed (I’m still having this nutso fluid issue, speaking of breasts growing back—and I have to go back yet again tomorrow to have another drain installed).
Eliza is a doctor, and she works many long hours at a big hospital in the Bronx. The whole time we were at Duke she kept remarking on how it was the nicest hospital she’d ever seen and how great everyone was. And because I had my own personal doctor with me, the nurse let me go home and take a shower two days earlier than normal because Eliza could re-dress the incision.
So that’s more of my Lucky—incredible friends, incredible care.
Which makes me re-think my image of serene, smooth-sailing Dr. Cavanaugh. It was 7pm on a Monday night. She was headed home after a long day discussing tumors and telling patients who wouldn’t just let their phones go to voicemail that they would need more chemo. Maybe worse. At home: her kids—two, not much older than mine, hastily crafted dinner, a mountain of emails, then maybe a glass of wine and a couple episodes of Amy Schumer to flush out the toxins of the day before getting up and doing it all again. She probably used the only quiet moments of her whole day to call me from the highway.
Nina, she’d said as we started to hang up, I just want you to know that I still feel like we’re in a good place on this.
She’s definitely my Lucky.
It is a remarkable thing to feel the hug of the world keeping you safe. It’s almost like standing out in the middle of six lanes of a chaotic highway, but cupped inside the cozy pod of a . . . tollbooth—with a trusty fan clipped to your desk and a good book on hand in case of a quiet spell.