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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The oncologist's waiting room

I'm sitting here in the waiting room of my oncologist's office trying not to stare at each person as they walk in. I can't help wondering what news each one will get today.  Good, bad? Status quo?

The woman who looks to be in her eighties is gaily dressed and smiling. She chats with all the nurses as they go by. They know her first name. One even gives her a hug and cups her face in her hands to say hello.  How long has she been coming here?  How long do you have to be a cancer patient to get a hug like that? I check in with myself. Do I feel encouraged by the sound of her laughter? Or am I disheartened, imagining myself so many years later, having spent countless hours in these leatherette chairs waiting for my doctor who is always an hour late? The truth is - I feel both encouraged and discouraged. Just a few more conflicting emotions that cancer brings to the table.

I hope to be a joyful 80 year-old woman wearing pink lipstick on a Monday morning; and I pray I won't have spent most of that time in the outer office of an oncology suite reading "Oncology Today". Okay, so I haven't actually seen a magazine with that title, but there probably is one.

The year following a breast cancer diagnosis is literally filled with doctor's appointments. It's all a person can do to keep up with each one. There's the surgeon, the oncologist, the radiation oncologist, maybe a naturapath or an acupuncturist, constant lab draws, and then all the regular doctors you have to see every year anyway. It's exhausting. Any day where you don't have to sit in a plastic chair feels like a vacation.

I tell people that having cancer is a full-time job. So if you're already working, now you have two jobs. And the pay for the second one stinks. The hours are grueling and the work environment is hazardous to your health. On top of that, even though you are forced to take your shirt off almost every day at this job - you can't sue for sexual harassment!

So,  my top 5 tips for dealing with the doctors visits:

1. Bring your own reading material. Seems obvious, right? Bring my book (if it ever gets published) or "People" magazine or anything else that may distract you from wondering about what will happen behind door number 2. Somehow we always assume there will be new magazines in the waiting room and there never are.

 2. Wear clothes that are easy to change into. You want to get out of there as soon as possible, so easy-on, easy-off. Particularly the shoes. Since one of the indignities is being weighed every single visit, I make sure I can get as close to naked as possible in 2 seconds.

 3. Assume you will actually see your doctor close to an hour after your scheduled appointment time, and then you can be pleasantly surprised when he's early. Build that extra hour or more into every appointment so you're not adding stress to your schedule by being held up. If, by some miracle, it all goes according to plan one day - you'll find yourself with a one-hour vacation. Grab a Starbucks or a quick walk. Stop and smell the roses.

4. Do not give any credence to the nagging feeling that you may get bad news today. That fear and anxiety is your new Siamese twin, but just because you are worried, doesn't increase the chance that something will be wrong this time. People only remember when those bad feelings ended in bad news; they somehow always forget all the times those feelings were absolutely false and misleading. The relief erases the memory.

5. Understand that once you have cancer, all visits to all doctors may induce sleepless nights and worry. Forgive yourself the fatigue that may follow. My oncologist recently told me that the reason I get so tired after every blood test is that my body became conditioned by chemo - so that every time my port is accessed, I respond as if I had chemo. Lovely. At least my hair follicles seem to have forgotten!

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