Email ANYTIME, she wrote. Her caps, not mine. Cue, giant sigh of relief.
In the past few weeks, cancer has had its way with me. My body has been angry, flaring up in hives and sending shooting pain through my chest bone. I’ve seen doctors and had tests and gotten results. It’s creepy-crawly. It’s not a place I like to be, this space of not knowing, of wondering if I’m gonna be OK, of weird and random and unexplained side effects.
And my oncologist is on sabbatical. So emailed her. Come in tomorrow, she emailed back, and in a nano-second, the cancer agency was calling to set up an appointment for me. I saw another oncologist. He opened the door without knocking, and he opened my gown without asking. My eyebrows raised. He was wearing batman earrings, but he was no super hero. He did not look old enough to have the years of knowledge Dr. G. carries with her, the knowledge that shapes her decisions, the knowledge that allows her to answer questions firmly and carefully and completely so that I feel taken care of and visible. One look at my reddened skin, mottled with tiny dots, and he assured me it had nothing to do with cancer. Bullshit. Also, since these hives are terrifying me at least acknowledge that they look scary, that they look angry, that they look abnormal. Acknowledge that I’m right to be terrified. Those hives covered only the fake tit, only the skin covering the implant, only the breast that was invaded by cells dividing without control. Those hives had everything to do with my cancer.
Way to build trust, Dr. Batman Earrings. I was skeptical from the moment you walked in the room, and you gave me very few reasons to trust you. You don’t get to fling open doors and blue hospital gowns like you own the cancer agency or worse, like you know my body better than me. Dr. Batman Earrings has got to work on establishing presence, holding space, moving the air so that there’s room for me to know that he is going to make sure this works, that he is going to make sure I’m cured, that he is going to make sure it’s OK.
You don’t know me. You glanced at a bunch of stats, you calculated risk, you flipped through a chart filled with words of warning and prescriptions for curing my cancer. You don’t know me. You were surprised at me. Surprised I didn’t act like I liked you from the second you walked in the door. But you gave me no reason to. I’m skeptical of your nose ring and your earrings and your hoodie. I’m wary of your male privilege. I’m not about to trust you just because you are a doctor. I’m a doctor too, you know. You don’t really know me.
If you really knew me, if you took even a second to really know me, you would know I spent hours debating whether I should call you about these stupid hives, and hours reading about what can cause hives or rash, and about inflammatory breast cancer. You would know I just finished my Ph.D. and that this cancer has been a harrowing experience. You would know the chemo dulled the vibrant orange-y strawberry that was my hair, and that I have a lot of different appointment buddies. You would know that fertility has been a major concern and that I feel so out of place amid the older women.
But you don’t know me. You only saw my chart. That’s not me. My body can’t be captured in those numbers, those graphs, those recommendations. That’s not me.
As the scans and tests mounted, I finally decided to email Dr. G.. Multiple paragraphs, each one dedicated to one of the strange occurrences. A lot of questions, about the hormone therapy Dr. Batman Earrings wanted me to switch to immediately. About the sternum pain and the X-ray, the risk of radiation from X-ray and the power of the tests to come. I tried not to sound too neurotic, I hoped the lines were not too laden with anxiety. But they were. I worried I was crossing a boundary, that I should be able to let her take her sabbatical without emails from patients, that I should be happy enough that Dr. Batman Earrings saw me the next day after Dr. G. sent an email, that I should be able to deal with whatever oncologist, because really, they’re all oncologists and what’s the difference?
But I emailed anyway. And she responded. At 2am.
And her response was such a relief. Oh thank goodness. Dr. G answered all the questions, in detail, carefully and kindly. She was reassuring and clear and consistent in her answers. There’s no room for uncertainty between cancer doctor and cancer patient, and she is not one to waffle. You can trust clear structure, you can trust certain not-waffling, you can trust her. She’s probably the only human on planet Earth who’s assessment of my being ok actually has the power to make me feel like I’m going to be ok. And she wasn’t wearing batman earrings, even though her emails came at 2am and again at 5am. She must never sleep. I don’t care. I am so relieved. Anytime, you can email me, she said. Oh relief.
I warmed up to Dr. Batman Earrings. He seems competent enough. They’re all competent though- somehow, they got through med school and an elite specialty. What I need is kind. He seems kind enough, but I still feel better about my own oncologist, the one who saw me through the chemo and who made sure I had time to do fertility treatments and who took my concerns seriously.
I sort of warmed to Dr. Batman Earrings. And if I can have Dr. G. over email, too, I can deal. I can stay warmish, if I know she’ll be back at summers’ end. I’ll be glad when Dr.G. is back, and until then, I’ll be here, rolling my eyes at Dr. Batman Earrings, and reminding him he doesn’t know me. He’s competent and kind and I can deal, but he doesn’t know me. And I won’t let him forget it. He doesn’t know me. Not really. Not yet.