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Learning to Speak Cancer

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

The flood of phone calls has started. First the surgeon’s office, then the “nurse navigator”, who apparently helps all the breast cancer newbies, then the oncologist’s office, then the newbie nurse again. I’m a robot, and my brain doesn’t even know what my mouth is saying.

But like a good cancer patient, I dutifully open my calendar and type in the dates, times and locations to the best of my shock-state ability, trying to absorb the instructions and saying “uh-huh” at what I hope are all the appropriate times.

I’m quickly realizing that cancer has its own jargon, terms I have never heard nor have ever wanted to hear: “sentinel node”, “oncotype”, “tamoxifen”, and the list goes on. I don’t speak this language. But they do, and I feel like they expect me to. It’s every bit as bewildering as wandering the streets of a foreign country looking for a bathroom.

Do I have any questions, they want to know? Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.

  • Since catching it “early” seems to be the big key to not dying… Did we catch it early, or at least early enough?

  • Can my liver, which is already damaged from years of abuse thanks to my errant immune system, even handle chemo?

  • How do I tell my family and friends?·

  • Will cancer ruin my family financially too?

  • Why do I feel ashamed for having cancer?

It turns out these aren’t the questions they can answer—the ones I’m desperately wanting answers to – at least not yet. I guess they mean, Do I have any other questions that don’t relate to cancer or my future or my family.

So, I hang up the phone all four times—flooded with frustration and fear and the unshakable feeling that this is going to be a long, brutal trek in an alien land, groping my way through dark, dense jungles and trying my best just to keep up with my guide.

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