YET: An open letter to oncology professionals

YET. It’s a small word. Made of three benign letters. Y.E.T. If you string them together, though, and hurl them at a patient that tiny word can send someone spiraling to hell.

A few weeks ago I had some bloodwork and a breast sonogram as part of a mid-year check up. I saw the physician’s assistant afterward to get the results. Which were all pretty good! No evidence of disease based on those tests. We discussed my side effects and she felt the need to tell me it has been a few years since treatment, as if to imply that I should be fine. Then she did the physical exam. After she felt all around my chest and armpits she said, “I don’t feel anything yet!”

I should have left there ecstatic. No evidence of disease! Instead I left there mentally digging a grave and throwing myself into it. Because of that “yet.” That “yet” translates to “It’s only a matter of time.” Or, “Your grave is waiting. We’ve already dug it!”

It would be hard to work in the oncology field. I get that. You have to give people bad news and then carry out various treatments and surgeries that torture them. And sometimes people die. It’s a profession with a really big downside. Accountants have to deal with audits on a bad day while oncologists have to deal with the deaths of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters.

But let me tell you. It’s almost impossible to be a cancer patient. We are the battlefield. We cannot escape it on the weekends or in Hawaii. Those of us with incurable cancer can never escape it. We spend extraordinary amounts of energy convincing ourselves to keep living even while it sometimes feels there’s a tsunami coming any second to decimate us.

I have had many oncology professionals who took my case personally. I have the personal cell phone number of two of my doctors. I have seen them look at me with the, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you. This totally sucks,” look. They speak honestly and compassionately with me. These are the people who are in the right profession because they can keep their humanity.

The ones in the wrong profession are the oncology professionals who see us as numbers. As prognoses. As inevitabilities. I am not an inevitability. I’m here, despite some bad odds.

22% of daughters born to teenage mothers become teen moms themselves. I beat that one!  Only 37% of children born to parents without college degrees enter college right out of high school and obtain a degree. I beat that one!  Children of addicts are 8x more likely to become addicts themselves. I beat that one!

Odds of five-year survival of a Grade 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma with an 8cm tumor, 22 positive lymph nodes and a chest wall recurrence while undergoing radiation and taking a chemo pill: there’s no way to know the exact odds in that scenario but it ain’t good.

And YET. I’m still here after three-and-a-half years. I’m under no illusions. I was riddled with cancer cells. Teeming with them. I’m awesome at growing cancer. Odds are that I’ll probably grow more of it. As I write this some breast cancer cells are lurking in my bones or liver or lymphatic system waiting for me to eat a cupcake so they can multiply exponentially and cause my demise. And YET. I. Am. Still. Here.

The medical professionals that see me need to SEE ME. Not a probable inevitability. And I need them to be present and rejoicing with me in every moment that those cells stay asleep, not looking at me and thinking about my expiration date.

Art by my friend Gwyn Michael, who passed from breast cancer earlier this year.

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