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Keys in hand, jacket still on, a night ahead of carefree dancing and possibly some horribly sung karaoke at a local dive bar with friends. Even though I wasn’t currently drinking any alcohol because of the dreaded “two-week wait” that occurs between ovulation and an accurate pregnancy test, I was looking forward to some good, old-fashioned fun. I sat in the doctor’s office, which was staged just as a doctor’s office should be, sterile and uninspired with a framed painting of pastel shapes on the boring, neutral wall and a few no-longer-relevant magazines with the address labels peeled off in a rack. I was sitting in a maroon chair with those uncomfortable wooden armrests next to the doctor on her black vinyl stool with wheels positioned in front of the computer screen that projected my test results. My leg was shaking; I was antsy. I still needed to pick up a birthday card and I disliked all my clothes at the moment, so what was I going to wear? Which jeans and which shirt? It’s November and mildly chilly out; we might be walking around the city, but probably hopping in cabs. Then the doctor said something.
The needle just slid off the record and everything froze.
Wait...what? The needle just slid off the record and everything froze. I literally blacked out and responded with uncharacteristic profanity after hearing those words you read about in articles where women wear pink, or hear in movies where someone dies at the end. You have cancer. The teeny tiny lump you found in your breast is malignant and something about estrogen and progesterone receptors and oncologists and you need to make an appointment with a breast surgeon and should I call someone...something...prognosis...survival...cancer...something...words...a look of genuine sympathy and I am so sorry. I continued to sob, to yell some profanity, but I also had a look of utter confusion as I attempted to understand the words. It was as if my brain just left, said I am out, I can’t handle this. No goodbye, just absent. I had the doctor call my husband to explain what had just happened, to repeat the words that I could not understand.
I was on a path with a light at the end, on my way to what I thought others achieved so easily: happiness.
This is not possible. I am in the throes of fertility treatments and I might be pregnant as I sit here; I just endured a year of negative pregnancy tests, shots in the abdomen, swollen ovaries, mood swings, and 6:45 AM blood work and ultrasound appointments before heading to work. I mean, I just had an IUI procedure last week. My husband had to watch hot Brazilian women on VHS in a doctor’s office similar to the unremarkable room I am in now. I am on the path to finally having a family, a child, a unit. The grief was supposed to be behind me. I was on a path with a light at the end, on my way to what I thought others achieved so easily: happiness. Being a part of a family was all I could think about. I was not about to get off this train.
Prior to sitting in this mundane doctor’s office, I had endured a series of uphill climbs and I didn’t know if I had it in me to embark on another journey; I had only just unpacked. I lost my mother 10 years ago due to symptoms of MS. I had watched her deteriorate and cripple to the point of circus sideshow fingers and reliance on a wheelchair and adult diapers. She became a prisoner in her own uncontrollable body and was completely bedridden. She eventually passed away from a blood clot that traveled to her lung and put her at peace while taking away her pain and helplessness, but left behind a loyal husband and two daughters in their prime 20-something years. My younger sister, who was 22 at the time, struggled to cope, and combined with getting in with the wrong crowd and her own vulnerability, she quickly developed a short-lived drug habit. My father found her in her bed in her childhood room with powder-blue walls and stuffed animals a mere seven months after losing his wife. She had passed away in her sleep overnight. The autopsy revealed that it was not intentional, but that drugs were present in her system.
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My father never recovered. I cared for him as he battled PTSD, depression, loneliness, and unforgiving guilt. I watched a man who provided an idyllic childhood for his daughters filled with campouts, shoulder rides, and road trips—all while being the sole provider and caretaker for his disabled wife—transform into someone who couldn’t manage a trip to the grocery store.
And now you’re telling me I have to get off of this train, this path that I just arrived on, because of cancer? Friends, doctors, family, and the universe all tried to get me to shift my thinking from creating life to saving my own. I had my heels dug in deep; I didn’t want to leave this already bumpy ride of infertility to get on that train, the one with pink boas and bald-headed women with no eyebrows, where friends do fundraising walks with my name on the back of their T-shirts and take turns driving me to chemo. I was told that it was a good thing the IUI cycle didn’t work and that I wasn’t pregnant. I was told that was a silver lining. Maybe it was.
Eventually, I had to surrender to survive, which I did. I had the surgery, the five months of chemo with my head in the toilet and a skeletal silhouette. I lost my long, shiny, thick, and beautifully straight brown hair and I had the black, lifted fingernails and constant taste in my mouth of black olives at the bottom of an aluminum can. I also completed the eight weeks of radiation topless and strapped to a machine with small dotted permanent tattoos on my breast and sternum. I now take my daily estrogen-blocking hormone therapy every night before drifting off to sleep. Thankfully, this little white pill helps keep me alive, but it can’t be consumed if you are pregnant and the standard regimen is recommended for 5-10 years. I continued to take the pill while the five little embryos that we managed to freeze prior to chemo were all transferred to extremely expensive but kind and willing surrogates. All resulted in failed cycles, including a miscarriage.
I even took this little white pill the evening I got another life-changing phone call. I was notified a month after completing my own chemo and radiation treatment that my father was diagnosed with lung cancer that spread to the brain. Years of chain smoking, self-deprecation, drinking, and general lack of self-care due to losing his wife and daughter had finally given him what he wanted, which was to end his pain. I continued to take the pill while I cared for my dying, martyred father, and gently held his fragile, translucent hand as he passed away three months after the initial call, four days before Christmas. He was an amazing man who was handed impossible circumstances.
I continue to survive, staying on my new path, heels no longer dug in deep, wondering where this unexpected train is going to take me, but no longer convinced that I need more than I already have to find happiness. I have learned to be grateful and find happiness every day. It is not something given to you or earned; it is something you decide. It doesn’t come because you have children or not, it comes because you decide it is there and with you while you ride the train without trying to drive it, get off of it, or control its destination.