Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cancer Is My Job

Cancer is my job. I don’t mean that figuratively. Literally, cancer is my job.

I hang up the phone, a tight ball of emotion tugging at the back of my throat. I thumb the bright yellow sticky notes in front of me and pen: leukemia. I lift the receiver and drumming the pen against the wooden desktop, I dial-in to my interoffice messaging system one more time. I scribble down the number and make a note to return their call.

The receiver clicks into the cradle and I glance down at the post-it balancing on the edge of my computer screen. Leukemia, 2 yrs. Next to that sits another note: Geoff, 23 testicular and under that; Miriam 42, Terminal.

All my life, I have been surrounded by notes like these. Sitting on my coffee table, scribbled next to the phone book, thrown into my lunch box by mistake. It wasn’t my mother’s fault. She had other things on her mind. When you have two notes side by side, it’s easy to get confused. With a flick of the wrist, your message about chemotherapy treatment suddenly becomes your daughter’s I love you honey and vice-versa. I would excuse myself from the classroom, wander down to the office and in my most polite, mind-your-manners-while-speaking-to-adults voice, I would ask to borrow the phone. Mom forgot easily those days. It was part of the routine. The information on the note would still be important and Daddy had taught us not to ignore them if we found them unexpectedly.

It isn’t a coincidence that ten years later I’m sitting in an office surrounded by notes like these.

The telephone rings again.

“Good morning, Canadian Cancer Society Patient Services, how may I help you?” There is a pause on the other end of the line. The sound of someone struggling to enunciate their exact needs. Really, what can you say? I have cancer? Take it away? That’s the only way we can really help these people. I wait. That is my job. I wait and I listen and I assist in any way I can.

“I have cancer,” the women says. She sounds shocked. She sounds exhausted. She sounds empty. Not a surprise.

This is always the hard part for me. Day after day people call me to find out about our services and most times, nine times out of ten, they are a newly diagnosed patient. They are someone who is still struggling with the reality of having an incredibly life threatening disease. How do you respond to this? You can be light hearted: With a false bravado in your voice you can tell them that this is the perfect number to call, you can be professional and explain to them that we are the patient services department and whatever they need, we can provide. Then you can be me: You can sit there sharing a silent moment with this person. You can know the effort it takes to utter those three words and you can hurt for them in just the same way you hurt when you saw those notes in your lunchbox.

“I have cervical cancer,” she elaborates after a moment, “stage 3.”

My heart sinks. Stage 3 means infected lymph nodes. It means it is not only in the lymph node, but scattered, spreading, tumerous and attacking both above and below the women’s diaphragm. It was this stage that forced my childhood living room to become a hospital cubical. It was this stage that made me hate the word cancer with a passion of indescribable depth.

“ This is always a scary situation to find yourself in...” I venture. I’m testing the waters. In fifty percent of cases this will lead to a question, in the others anger, a demand; do you really understand what I’m going through?

“Yeah...” she answers rather feebly.

“Well, there are plenty of services that we offer here. Patient support, peer to peer interaction, rides to treatment, any of the above. What can I help you with?” I have my post-its ready, prepared to make notes.

“I need you to tell me I’m not going to die.”

My body is frozen.

“I need you to tell me I can fight this.”

I sit rigid in my chair, all air sucked from my lungs by this request. I don’t have that answer, I want to tell her. I don’t believe that!, I want to yell. There is a piercing memory fresh in my mind. There is a dying women in my living room begging me to tell this women the opposite, screaming for her to hang up now, hug her children and say goodbye before it’s too late. There is a lot that I want to tell this woman, but I don’t. Instead I let the pen fall to note pad.

I look through bleary eyes at the mandate pasted to my desk top and I tell her that we will find a cure. I tell her that together, we are strong. I tell her that there are options, there are treatments and there are people who can try to work miracles for her. I tell her the success rates for women her age. I tell her everything I know about the disease and how to fight it. I tell her that for cancer patients the fight is not against cancer, but for life. I tell her to fight for life and let us fight the cancer for her. I leave her the number for a specialist in her field and I tell her if anyone can save her, he can.

By the time I hang up the phone, I almost believe myself.