I am at my follow-up appointment in secret. Two years after finishing treatment, the novelty has long worn off. I didn't tell anyone this appointment was approaching. I almost forgot about it myself. Once I remembered, I mentioned it casually to my boyfriend in a passing text message. "I'll be home a little late. At the hospital for an appointment." I considered checking in with my sister to see if she was free and willing to accompany (read: entertain) me. But that never happened. And here I am, waiting in the crowded, overbooked hematology clinic, alone.
This scene is a lot different than the one I found myself in during treatment. My three-week routine of blood test/chemotherapy/pause/blood test/chemotherapy/pause was no secret. Coming to the hospital alone was an option my family didn't even consider. I have vivid memories of sitting in the chemotherapy ward, drugged and dozy from my routine dosage of pre-chemo Benadryl, while a rotation of family members came in and out of the waiting room to sit and entertain me.
My younger sister was there most often, perhaps because I wanted her to be. She was content to aggressively flip through the glossy, gossip magazines we stockpiled, offering her uncensored judgments on the poor individuals who graced the inside pages. Her searing comments never failed to get a laugh out of me, distracting me from the toxic drugs that pushed through my veins. She's the only one I ask to accompany me to the hospital for my follow-ups. Despite anxiety over her own health, she's the one who's most available to me.
My older sister only attended the first treatment before she gave birth to my niece. She observed me anxiously the entire time, asking questions non-stop. How does it feel? What are you watching out for? Are you itchy yet? Do you need to sleep? Where's the nurse? My younger sister explained to me later that she had burst into tears as they watched me go into the chemo ward for that first treatment. That troubled me. I couldn't understand why she would be crying.
When it was my boyfriend's turn to keep me company he would read the newspaper from a distance, nervously avoiding eye contact. I sat happily as he prattled on about the most recent controversy in American politics. Every so often he would stop himself, place his hand gently on my leg, look me right in the eye and say, "I'm so proud of you," before continuing on with his commentary.
My mom, haunted I'm sure by her own fears, would remain conspicuously absent from the chemo ward, left to wander the hospital corridors and ensure my entourage and I had copious amounts of reading material, confection, and other supplies from the outside world. She'd pop her head in only long enough to make sure I had everything I needed and that I was comfortable. Once confirmed, back out into the world she'd go, ready to storm in at the moment she was suddenly needed.
But now, the chairs beside me in the clinic are vacant. I'm left to entertain myself, and am happy to sit and read a good book or catch up on the current events flashing by on the newly installed TV. My aloneness is of my own making. My sisters, boyfriend and mom would be happy to accompany me to these follow-ups. But the truth is, my appointments just aren't a big deal anymore. They don't need to be here. They don't need to know. I barely have anything to say to my doctor when he asks how I've been. Each time, I'm better than the last. Each time, I have less and less to ask about.
The man a couple seats down from me remarks that I "look too healthy to be here." I tell him I haven't always been this healthy, but agree with him silently. Everyone else there is surrounded by family, friends and partners, like I was once. They glance over at me in wonderment, trying to place me among the tired and the sick. This is just another day for me, just another appointment. The fear and anxiety that once accompanied me to this hospital has receded into a faded, distant memory, almost like a dream. My appointment with my oncologist will be short and breezy and soon I'll be back at work, quibbling over the trivial.
Just moments after my appointment is over, where I've chatted with my oncologist about my work and the weather, I'm on my bike heading back to the office for a meeting, clear-headed and calm. I wonder how soon I'll call my mom to tell her about my follow-up appointment. Does it have to be a phone call? Can I update her by text message? Although she's terrible at hiding it, she'd be irritated that I kept news of a follow-up from her. But what would I say? "Yup, relapse and secondary cancers are still a risk and the doctor's pleased I'm getting my periods." Same old, same old.
If I have time later tonight, sure, I'll call. But I remember that I have dinner plans and won't be home until late. News from my follow-up will have to wait until the weekend.