What It Feels Like Waiting for Cancer Test Results

Then the air fills with oxygen and the punch in the gut goes away and the elevator stops falling, just like that. Two seconds. And you smile back at him -- a big dazzling smile -- and you ask him how his bike trip was in Barcelona.
07/25/2014 08:04 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

I was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006. For the past eight years since my operation I've gone every few months for a blood test or scan. I just had another clear scan, and by now I'm used to the routine, although sometimes if I have a cold or I'm not feeling 100 percent I still feel as I did when I wrote the piece below, when I lived alone and feared the worst. I express my feelings through the format and syntax as well as the words:

From right after you take the last blood test or scan until you take the next, time flows pretty normally. And then, a couple of weeks before the test, you start thinking of it. And the day before the test you dwell on it. And the night before you can't sleep and you get into bed early and wrap the covers around you and put on the TV to get to sleep and leave it on 60-minute snooze, and you fall asleep to a rerun of "Hardball." And you get up in the dark and obsess and think in clichᅢᄅs: you're beating the odds, not out of the woods but ahead of the game.

You've been dealing with this for two and a half years now. The surgeon told you not to worry: "80 percent of people with your type of Stage 1a make it past five years." One day you took eight pennies (what else are they good for anyway?) and you added two dimes and you put them in a cup and it may not be statistically valid but you shook them all up, and you started picking them out to see the odds for yourself. How many times would you pick a penny? And when you started picking up the dimes you stopped and threw the change in the tip cup at the 7-11.


The day of the test you wake up and your gut feels punched or like falling fast in an elevator except it doesn't go away, it keeps getting stronger. You make some coffee but you don't want to eat, in fact you realize you didn't eat much dinner or maybe nothing more than an apple.

You take a shower longer than usual, in fact you come out with pruney fingers and you wanted to wash away the fear but when you dry off, the fear remains, only stronger. And you go through the motions and you try not to imagine -- your mother always said you were cursed with imagination -- and you comb your hair and you put on your makeup, but not mascara in case you might be crying later.

And as usual you've told no one because you don't want them to worry, but you have your cell phone charged in case you have long calls to make from the doctor's office. And your car is filled with gas because if something happens you don't want to have to stop and fill the car up.

And you drive to the oncologist's office and you don't want to get there too early or too late because both are stressful and you have enough stress.

And the receptionist greets you with a soft smile and a small voice and you notice that all of the nurses sound the same because they must be trained to be soft and small so as not to scare the patients who are already scared, although we try not to admit it, but come on, this is grace under pressure, this is serious stuff we're talking about here, not pretend serious like when you go to the dentist.

And you sit in the waiting room which is painted in a soft pink that you figure some consultant told them is soothing for people who might have to hear they aren't going to make it, and you look at all the other normal-looking people; well some are bald and some are gaunt, but most look like anybody else, like you do.

And many are young and you feel bad and wonder if they have something curable which is slow, or something bad like what you have -- although yours was caught early so it isn't as bad although people when they hear what you have give you a look which makes you feel they think you are a goner and don't realize the odds are in your favor, despite the damn dimes that came up when you play the pennies game.

And some people in the waiting room are sitting alone like you, and you wonder if they don't tell anybody either, or if they just want to be by themselves so no one fusses, or if they have the kind of cancer that doesn't require a person to accompany them.

And you sit and you look at the magazines, and most of them are about surviving and scarves to cover baldness, and you don't want to read about that sort of thing right now and besides you'd rather go on the web and read funny posts, and you forget for a few minutes that you're waiting to go in the examining room in five minutes to find out if you're going to live or die.

And then you think 'we're all going to die,' it's just you'd rather put it off for as long as possible, and you start to bargain again about building a house in Chile for Habitat for Humanity like your sister and brother-in-law did last summer, except they said that it was 40 degrees in the mountains with no heat, and you've got enough to worry about right here, right this moment thank you very much.

And the nurse calls your name and pronounces it wrong again but you don't tell her again because who cares, there are more important things to worry about, and you sit in the examining room with the green walls, not pink, but soft -- everything in this f...ing office is soft except the big computer in the middle where the notes are recorded and the examining table with the paper where you always lie down after the doctor gives you the news about the blood test, which so far has been good but if the news wasn't good maybe you wouldn't lie down.

And the young nurse comes in, the one who is drawing the blood that in a few minutes will tell you if you are going to live or die, and she takes your blood pressure and says it's higher than usual (well what do you think missy, I'm waiting to hear if I'm about to die soon -- how would you feel, calm?). And then she weighs you and says you've lost ten pounds since the last visit and looks a bit alarmed and you tell her you worked hard at that and exercised five times a week and ate smaller portions, but so what, all you care about is finding out from the blood test if you will be happy and feel grateful or fall apart, and she finally takes the blood and you feel better because the waiting is almost over.

And she leaves the room and you know that in the next couple of minutes the blood will be evaluated and you will meanwhile be sitting by yourself, so you look around the room and it is pretty sterile and that's good, because it's a doctor's office after all and you don't expect pillows and sconces.

And now each second is like a minute and you start to look at the door because maybe the test is ready sooner than you thought, and you're waiting for the oncologist to come in with the news and a smile, because that's always what he does because he knows you don't want the small talk, you want to know how the blood test went, and he is kind, so his smile signals within a second if you are alright.

But you know that one of these times he could come to that door and not smile and he could pause and let you realize before he tells you the bad news, which you don't want to think about.

And the time is passing like you are under the sea, and you are breathing deeply and bargaining heavily and staring at the soft green walls which are not soothing right now, oh no.

And then you hear the doctor in the hall, and he is talking to somebody.

And you are waiting. And you are holding your breath. And you are bargaining one last time as fast as you can. You will do anything to see him smile.

And this time he doesn't smile and he doesn't say "You're fine, we'll just have to see you in three months."

He smiles and says, "You're fine, we'll just have to see you in six months."


And then the air fills with oxygen and the punch in the gut goes away and the elevator stops falling, just like that. Two seconds. And you smile back at him -- a big dazzling smile -- and you ask him how his bike trip was in Barcelona.

And you realize you're starving. And after you get up from the examining table you drive to the diner. And you order a deluxe cheeseburger with fries.