From the category archives:

Doctor’s Appointment

Surgeon at Work

Twenty minutes after Professor Oncology nixes chemo therapy, five minutes after Dr. Alpha, the radiation oncologist, calls to tell me that I need a re-excision to get clear margins (you are supposed to have 2 mm) I am sitting in my friend’s garden sipping tea from her bone china cup. I am “in the moment” trying not to mull over all the “what ifs.”   The insufficient margin frustration is behind me. Well,  almost.  My new bosom buddy, the radiation oncologist, took charge of the incomprehensible pathology report. He even called a day earlier than promised to let me know that I , indeed, need a second surgery!

Suddenly, my cell phone buzzes. A Magnolia Cancer Center number.

The way Dr. Guru, my surgeon, puts it to me, one might think that he himself had called  my radiation oncologist, to tell him to hold off radiation,  not the other way around.

“I am still not convinced you really need this,” Dr. Guru says. “But maybe it is not such a bad idea, after all.” Then in what seems like a vague apology he adds:  “I know you are very busy and all and this will be a bit of an inconvenience for you, but we might as well go ahead and put it behind us. “

“Might as well. But when?”

“Next week.” Dr. Guru does not hesitate. “We will schedule this for next week. Joy will call you to arrange the details.”

I feel stupid for being so happy. How much happier could I not have been  had  I been wrong about the re-excision, and able to start radiation right away? Is it not childish to be happy about being vindicated? After all, I am the one who will be the most inconvenienced, just like Dr. Guru admitted. Also, I feel mildly irritated that Dr. Alpha has to tell me not to hurt Dr. Guru’s feelings by “not rubbing his nose in it.” What other profession is filled with egos so fragile that they need to be perpetually wrapped in velvet and praise? A master surgeon is never to be reminded of a mistake, however slight or insignificant.

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The sign “Magnolia Cancer Center” does not look as surreal as it has during my previous visits. After all, I do have breast cancer and this center is for me. Although I do not yet have the hollow eyes, the waxy complexion, the bloated body, or the shuffling gate of so many of the other cancer patients I see here. I suppose it is because I have yet to start my treatments.

A large black woman with a gap between her teeth greets me. Her look is that of kindness and concern, but not pity. I must have “new patient” written all over me. Eventually, I ,too, will be ground down by all the chemicals and look like the others: a shadow of former self.

The oncology department’s reception is as spacious as a hotel lobby, and lit by large windows. Someone has obviously dumped a serious amount of capital into this interior. (Although not enough money to allow the purchase of scanners to allow the doctors to email reports to patients.) Yet, the setting is remarkably different from Dr. Weary’s crowded, and a bit shabby, office.

The first person to check me is not Professor Oncology. It is a short, slightly round faced man in a white coat. I assume he is a student at first. Then I notice his  name tag.  He is already a doctor,  a  fellow in oncology, he explains. He seems kind, serious, and gentle. He weighs me in fully dressed and I wish I had kicked off my shoes to reduce my chart by a pound.

Professor Oncology looks Indian and seems too young to be a full Professor and Cancer specialist . Had I met her in a hospital corridor I would have taken her, too,  for a  medical student. Her black straight hair hangs down below her shoulders as does her drab navy skirt which goes inches below her knees and her white coat.  Her face is completely devoid of makeup. Her hands have a pianist’s sinewy, long fingers. Carefully, she feels about my neck, looking for signs of swollen nodes. She feels my breasts, and my armpits. She asks for permission for Dr. Fellow to examine me also.

Dr. Fellow stops with both hands around my neck and looks over at the Professor. He must think that he found something. I tense up, but she shakes her head. I immediately relax as does he.

The professor does not print out an adjuvant online graph like both Dr. Guru and Dr. Weary did. Instead, she  scribbles a few things on the back of a piece of paper. She tells me what I already know: stage 1, node negative, ER/PR + strongly so, HER/2 neg. grade 1 tumor. Like Dr. Weary, she is a bit baffled by my relatively high oncodx score.  It is 23. But she is still convinced that chemo would only improve my odds by 2%.  The professor, more than any of the others, stress the toxicity of chemo therapy: Leukemia, heart problems, bone marrow loss, risk for other infections.

Unlike, Dr. Weary, she does not agonize even a bit about skipping chemo. To my immense relief, she seems to have no doubts. She does not wring her hands, does not stand up only to abruptly sit down.

She draws up a five-year plan for hormone therapy: five years on Tamoxifen.  Or, she suggest,  we can do 21/2 years  and then switch to Arimidex, an aromatase inhibitor. I look aghast. “Oh well, Tamoxifen then,”  she shrugs. She does not ask what I have against Arimidex. She gives me an appointment for two months later when radiation will, supposedly, be over. She does not explain why I can not be on hormone blockers while on radiation. She does not bring up insufficient margins. I do not tell her about Dr. Alpha other than to mention that I will have radiation at a hospital closer to home.

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Dr. Alpha Can’t Radiate Me – Yet!

January 6, 2010

Dr. Alpha, my new radiation oncologist, flips back and forth  in my pathology report. He seems annoyed. Not with me, but with the report. He pushes the reading glasses back on top of his head. “I don’t understand this,” he says. His tone bristles, but he looks kindly at me as he stabs his finger […]

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Visit with Radiation Oncologist

December 20, 2009

I leave Dr. Weary to meander through the bowels of the hospital until I end up in its basement.  “Radiation” reads one arrow pointing down yet another hallway.  Around that corner another door:  “Environmental Services.” Toxic waste? Then I realize it is only a euphemism for the janitor’s office. Around the next corner from the […]

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Breast Cancer Tends to Sneak Up on You

December 2, 2009

Dr. Weary piles on the good news about his chemo regimen: “You will not suffer for five months straight. Only for six week-ends. You may have your treatments on Fridays so you can recover over the week-end and be at work by Monday. Maybe by Tuesday.” “Great.” “We give you medication to control nausea. You […]

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Chemo After All?

November 24, 2009

Dr. Weary’s office is crowded and a bit shabby. His nurse weighs me, takes my blood pressure and draws several vials of blood. The work area is cramped and cluttered. Staff bumps into each other as they reach for needles, gauze, and other paraphernalia. I walk towards my meeting with Dr. Weary himself  through a […]

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Annoying People in Oncologist’s Waiting Room

November 21, 2009

In Dr. Weary’s waiting room, I begin to fill in endless health questions on a clumsy electronic gadget. It allows him to transfer everything directly to a computer without errors, I suppose. But the design of the gadget is decidedly more  Soviet era style  than a modern American invention. The waiting room is empty except […]

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Onward to the Oncologist(s)

November 15, 2009

The Breast Consultants at Vanderbilt University confirm the previous findings in my pathology report. And Dr. Guru assures me that “he would not do a re-excision on his own wife.”  That does it for me. I cancel the appointment  with the second surgeon, the one set by my sister-in-law. After all, the second surgeon has […]

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The Ten Second Post-Op Consultation

September 13, 2009

Monday morning, 7 AM as usual, I am back at work after my Friday lumpectomy. I feel a bit listless, like walking in chewing gum. My brain is gauzy, but I have no pain.  The week-end has been one long folk fest filled with visitors and forced relaxation. The worst  now is not being able […]

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Surgery Day Hurray

August 15, 2009

The day I have worried about, fought for, and pushed for, is finally here. Last time I had surgery, 26 years ago,  two healthy full-term babies, a boy and a girl, were removed from my body. This time the surgeon will remove a specimen of malignant neoplastic tissue, surrounded, I suppose, by normal grizzle and […]

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