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.



  1. Hi Laara!

    Wow, where to start with this one. Truly, it's a fantastic piece. It's well written, it's clear and succinct, it flows well... But beyond the mechanics I think one thing that struck me about your work here was your ability to move from the big picture to the small. We talked about that in class, as I recall, and I'd say that your use of the shift between your memories as a child to being at your desk is simply fantastic. And what I found to be so great about those transitions is that they had an object to link them. The cancer related sticky notes that sometimes got left in your bag allows the reader to see the links between your now and then. Of course, then you manage to increase the tension of those memories when you recalled your very own living room turning into a scene, again linking the two 'worlds'.

    I suppose that I just really love this work as a whole. I suppose that it has as much to do with the mechanics and style, as it does with the links. I love those tie-ins, though! helping to bring the reader back and forth through past and future with such ease takes some real ability, and I suppose that's why I couldn't help but think "Wow" when I finished the post.

    It all just flowed so well... and the ending was a bold but passionate stamp on the whole thing: "Almost". I can almost come to understand what it must have been like living with that shadow around you...That cancerous cloud, somehow managing to creep its way into your school bag. I think I understand why "Almost" is an important stamp. And if I do, it's because you helped lead me to that understanding with this piece. To me that says a lot about it.

    A great work, truly so!

    And thank you for sharing it!

    (I also hope I didn't assume too much at any time)

  2. Hey Laara,
    This is truly a great piece. You've written something that is obviously very personal but instead of simply jotting down your feelings you've sifted through these emotions and exposed the deeper meaning. Transcribing the post-it notes was a great idea and very effective. I loved the imagery of getting these notes in your school lunch by mistake. I thought that was brilliant. I really enjoyed this read and having someone close to me who has suffered from this awful disease I could truly relate to your story. I look forward to reading more of your posts :)

    -Coleman Hell