Graduation day. I’ve been lucky in my life to have had several of those, all for positive reasons (I mean, I guess for the most part graduations are positive, right?). The last one, in 2014, was a particular personal triumph, because I paid for the whole damn degree myself. And in a way, I paid for this graduation, too. It just took a lot longer, and cost a lot more.
Let’s take a trip back to early 2011, which was, ridiculously enough, ten years ago. I first met Dr. Brooke Gillett when I came to Springfield seeking a new doctor, and a new location, for a second opinion. My initial oncologist had scheduled me for six chemotherapy treatments, and then told me that I would need four more of a new type, Taxol, after that. I was having enough trouble wrapping my head around six treatments, so the thought of extending that to 10 was – well, if you’ve had chemo, or sat with anyone who has, you know that it’s a lot.
When I came to Dr. Gillett, I was four treatments in. I had lost my hair (everywhere but my eyebrows), my strength, and my ability to smell or taste anything. I had a port sticking out just under my collarbone that looked like a damn doorknob. I was very puffy and faintly nauseated all the time. I had no fucks left to give, honestly. But I felt like the act of even getting myself to the appointment was a sign that I still had some life. I had a 14-year-old son whom I really, really liked, and an extreme aversion to those extra treatments, like I said earlier, and those are the dual reasons I found myself in her exam room.
When she walked in, I felt like there may have been a mistake. She was tiny and looked so young that it seemed like there was no way she could have possibly gone through regular college, much less med school (spoiler alert: she still looks this way, ten years later). But when she spoke, I was immediately at ease.
The blessing and curse of chemo treatment (and this could also be from my regular brain) is that some facts are kind of hard to retain, fuzzy, or just plain gone from your memory. What I THINK happened is that we talked through my history, my age, Stage One diagnosis, my Grade Three tumor, and probably the other stuff – ductal carcinoma in situ, Adriamycin and Cytoxin chemo – who knows, really. But I do remember what she said next.
“You don’t need the Taxol,” she said. “Honestly, you don’t even need six treatments of your current chemotherapy. With your age and health, I recommend four. You’d be able to do the 33 radiation treatments and be done.” (I’m obviously paraphrasing, and I really hope oncologists don’t hate me for my one simple mind.)
And that simple mind took a beat to process what she was saying. But what she was saying was…she thought I could be done with chemo. I floated out of there, got in my car, and cried my face off. The idea of being done – done with the days of sickness, done with the struggling to keep my job, done with the inability to be a good parent to my kid – made me feel more alive than I had since, really, before I got sick.
I drove to the mall. I wandered in a random door, which I think was Macy’s, and bought myself a really cheap butterfly necklace, because I saw it, and like I said, it was cheap, and I was pretty broke, but it was also the closest thing to the way I felt right then. Like I was going to really beat this.* Like I might have hair again. And like I had my life back.
*side note: my prognosis was always a good one. But when you feel really, really sick for what feels like forever, it’s hard to think of anything but how much you really, really feel sick.
I still have that necklace somewhere, but I didn’t remember to look for it before I went back to see Dr. Gillett this week for my annual follow-up. I did have the pink rubber bracelet from a batch my son had made for me before my treatment, so I wore it instead.
The appointment was short. We acknowledged our 10-year anniversary. She gave me a breast exam, as one should at these types of things, asked me some questions, and then sat back.
“Do you want to come back anymore, or just see your primary care doctor?”
I felt like the least qualified person in the room to answer that, so I asked her what she thought.
“I think that you can do that. You don’t need to come back here anymore, unless something changes.” She obviously saw my face completely change, or noted the confusion or something, because then she clarified.
“It’s your graduation day. You graduated!”
And just like that, it was 10 years ago again. She’d somehow bottled that same magic and sprinkled it all the hell over that exam room once more.
We said our goodbyes, she left, and I stayed in the room and cried. Then I went and got in my car, sat there in the parking garage for a while, and thought about who was with me when I started. And then I thought about how many of them aren’t with me anymore – all of whom I would have wanted with me on this graduation day.
I thought about how much random bullshit cancer was, how cruel it can be, and how many people work around the clock to ensure that there are more survivors. I thought about how the past 10 years have been the most full and meaningful years of my adult life, because I treasure being alive. I thought about how many times I’ve told people that cancer, in a weird way, had affected me positively, because I definitely took too much for granted and had a far more negative outlook on life before it.
And then…I just drove straight home, to the place I wanted to be and the people who were waiting, and I called the ones who are still here now, because you can’t take the ones with you for granted. Even though it’s kind of impossible to ALWAYS be present in the moment, it’s a lot easier with time.
And I have a lot more of that than I used to think I did.