“I’m feeling a little something,” says the nurse. A little something? What kind of little something? I’m lying on my back, with my heels hooked into those horrible stirrups that seem always to accompany horrible moments in life, feeling about as dignified as a tabloid queen caught on camera without her underwear. This is probably because I’m not actually wearing any underwear and instead have a vaginal speculum shoved between my legs.
“There’s an abnormality” the nurse continues. “On your right ovary.”
On my ovary? The moment I realize that my reproductive organs are in danger, I begin to panic, not because I’m in any great rush to get pregnant (perish the thought!) but because my grandmother died of ovarian cancer.
“It may be nothing,” I hear the nurse say, “but given the history of cancer in your family you’ll need a transvaginal ultrasound.”
It is at this point that I stop breathing. Ultrasounds are for mothers-to-be or people who have something seriously wrong with them, not healthy soon-to-be 26 year-olds (especially as 26 is the cut off for remaining on your parents’ health insurance here in the US). And what the hell does “transvaginal” even mean? It sounds like the sort of the word the detectives toss around when they’re investigating crime scenes on shows like CSI or Law and Order—you know, shows that deal with dead people.
To make matters even worse, a dear friend of mine had a cancer scare of her own recently. Like me, she’s in her twenties and unable to afford decent health insurance. We had a lengthy conversation while she was waiting for her test results, the foci of which were:
1) What if I can’t have children?
2) What if I lose my hair?
3) How am I going to pay for this?
I had tried to be as supportive as I could—especially with regards to chemotherapy and the potential for hair loss; trivial though this may sound, this particular friend of mine has gorgeous hair— but really, I had no idea what she was going through.
As I crumble my paper gown and toss it into the trash at the end of my examination, however, I suddenly understand exactly how she felt.
I feel sick.
I feel terrified and angry and completely bewildered. How am I going to pay for this? What about my hair? What about my ability to eventually conceive children and… I don’t know… live to see my 30th birthday?
It’s not fair. And it’s my brother’s birthday so I can’t even tell my parents because I know my mom will freak out and I don’t want to ruin what’s supposed to be a celebration—especially as it’s not my celebration to ruin.
My first instinct, aside from calling my mom, is to call my friend who’s just been through this, but she’s out of the country. My second instinct is to call Date #7, because who better to call when the sidewalk seems to buckle beneath you than the man who can stop the world from spinning with a single kiss? He’ll tell me everything’s going to be alright. But what if he doesn’t? He’s not my boyfriend. I don’t want to burden him with the news or my need for consolation. Not yet.
So I call the scary-sounding diagnostic center in North Philly instead. With my 26th birthday looming, I need to get this taken care of as soon as possible because the ultrasound—not to mention whatever treatments I’ll need as a result—will cost an arm and a leg once I’m off my parents’ health insurance.
Of course, the secretary won’t even schedule an appointment without my insurance information upfront and I’ve forgotten my wallet so I can’t give it to her.
On the verge of tears, I stumble into the nearest coffee shop and order an iced chai. I need caffeine. I need to think. I also need $4.50 cents to pay for my drink and of course it’s not until after I place my order that I remember having accidentally left my wallet at home.
Now I really feel like sh*t.
“I’m so sorry!” I stammer. I’m at one of my favorite coffee shops and the barista has already made my drink. I dig through every pocket of my bag in the hopes of finding a forgotten bill somewhere but the line is building behind me and suddenly I’m that girl: the girl who orders a drink she can’t pay for.
But the barista just smiles. “Take it, no sense wasting it.”
And she’s right. Gratefully I accept the drink and promise to leave a very big tip the next time I stop by.
But this doesn’t solve the problem of the scan, the “abnormality” on my ovary or the fact that it’s my brother’s birthday and I’m determined to keep my chin up for his sake. I call the diagnostic center again when I get home, schedule an appointment for the following day and lose myself to the Richter tradition of drunk-mini golf for the duration of the evening.
When I wake up the next morning, I put on one of my prettiest summer dresses—one of the Indian ones I got at Camden Market—and the platform espadrilles I bought on the eve of Date #7’s arrival back in June. I’ve been researching ovarian cancer on the internet and have decided that if I’m going out, I’m going to go out in style. I throw a new paperback into my pocketbook and head up to North Philly, alone and completely terrified but surprisingly composed because really, there’s nothing I can do about any of this. It’s out of my hands.
The transvaginal ultrasound takes forever. It’s dark and the technician says nothing as she probes; the only sound is that of the keyboard as she clicks and clicks and clicks and I’m lying there thinking, “What the f*ck are you typing? What the f*ck are you seeing and when the f*ck are you going to take this godforsaken ‘wand’ out of me?”
“We’ll fax the results to your doctor,” she tells me, her tone indicating nothing—absolutely nothing—either way. I notice a picture of a little girl in a dance recital costume tacked about her desk and my eyes well up again. What if I never have a daughter?
I pour myself a glass of water before leaving the diagnostic center and turn the radio on the minute I reach my car. I’m hoping for something totally ridiculous—preferably Justin Timberlake or Usher so I can get my groove on and make it home without succumbing to a total meltdown on the interstate—but instead I get “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry.
For those of you not up on your sh*tty, sappy country music, it begins like this:
If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a, bed of roses
Sink me in the river, at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song
Then, in case you’re not sufficiently suicidal at this point, it continues:
Lord make me a rainbow, I’ll shine down on my mother
She’ll know I’m safe with you when she stands under my colors, oh and
Life ain’t always what you think it ought to be, no
Ain’t even grey, but she buries her baby
Now I wish I could say that I don’t put a lot of stock into “coincidences” of the superstitious variety but I do. Before I know it, I’m making a mental checklist of all of my unfinished manuscripts, all of my unrealized dreams, and I realize I’ll have to reorganize my files and leave my flash drives where my mom will be able to find them, this way she can sort everything out when I’m gone…
Then I wonder if Date #7 will come to my funeral and whether or not he’ll bring a date, and whether or not my brother will have a girlfriend by then because I’d really like for him not to be alone, and what my mother will wear, and what my dad will wear and what I will wear although of course this last one won’t really matter now, will it?
But this is not the way my life is meant to turn out. No fucking way.
I slam my first into the radio with a succession of curse words. It’s one thing to die of ovarian cancer; it’s another to die in a car accident on the interstate because you’re listening to crappy country music and bawling your eyes out, especially when the paperback you’ve got in my pocketbook is terrible and you know you can do better.
So I pull myself together, drive home and barricade myself in my room with my journal. I stare out the window and I let the tears fall and then I think, “Okay, enough of this bullshit. Are you happy? If you had one year left to live, or maybe two or three or perhaps only six months, would you want to continue this life? Are you doing what you love? Will you die without regrets?”
Then came the most frightening realization of all: the answer to each and every one of these questions was no.
No, I am not happy—at least not as happy as I could be. I am doing what I love but I’m also ignoring several of the things I love most in this world because the pursuit of these things requires more courage than I currently possess.
Furthermore, I will, in fact, regret a great number of things if I were to go the way of the Band Perry song and I realized, as an afterthought, that if I had only a few years left to do everything I feel I’m meant to do, I’d throw my academic aspirations out the window. No more conferences. No PhD, and even though I feel like I’d disappoint a great number of people with such a decision, I would not be one of them.
A few days ago, I found out that I’m fine. The “abnormality” was just a benign collection of follicles and not ovarian cancer—thank God. I won’t lose my hair, I won’t die young and I’ll be able to have children if ever I reach a point in the maturation process where the loss of my hair is not my biggest concern.
It took a while for me to decide whether or not I should share this story. Eventually I told my parents and to my great surprise and relief, they both said, “Is that all? We thought maybe you’d gotten another rejection letter.” (Evidently, I hadn’t been as composed as I’d thought and they know me better than I know my self.)
Nonetheless, the days during which I had to wait for the results of the ultrasound sucked. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t help but feel as though I was going through some sort of intense, life-changing therapy session, probably because I was.
So I’m sharing this story so that you too can reap the benefits of the cancer-scare-reevaluation-of-your-life-and-priorities-process without actually having to go through the scare yourself.
Are you happy?
If you’re reading this at work, is it work that you love (or at least work that enables you to do the things you love) or are you reading this to distract you from something you hate, counting down the minutes until 5:00pm?
Finally, if you were to die tomorrow or next year or even three years from now, would you feel as though you’d lived your life to the fullest?
Quakers have a very simple expression that I’m planning to paint onto my bathroom mirror as soon as I finish this post: Live adventurously.
So if you’ve answered “no” to any of the above, I’d advise you to start contemplating your mortality. Feel free to get as creative and melodramatic as you need for the idea of an imminent death to sink in (you can play “Say What You Need To Say” by John Mayer in the background if you need a little help, or the notorious “If I Die Young”) and get your shit together because not everyone is lucky enough to go through a cancer scare at 25 and live to tell.
(PS: I apologize if this post offends anyone who has struggled with and/or lost a loved one to cancer. I always try to inject a bit of humor into my writing, even when it may seem inappropriate, so please take this post in the spirit it was intended and know that my heart goes out to you.)