I’m back in LA this week and that means it’s time to be up to date with all things medical. It’s an American thing - the way the health system is over here, the time to see doctors is driven more by when the health insurance companies decide and when your deductibles are low (hang on to that NHS tooth and nail, UK people.)
I'm not generally a fan of going to the doctor’s. This could be to do with that I don’t really like being prodded and poked about, or that I’m not keen on the idea that I need help, or that my family doctor when I was a kid, would regularly do his consultations with a glass of whisky in one hand and a cigarette in the other. But I’m a big grown adult now, and I accept that part of being a big grown adult is that you have to do stuff that you don’t particularly like.
The first time I walked into an oncologist's office I burst into tears. I'd just been diagnosed and had no idea what to expect, and there was a whole snafu with health insurance that meant I went to the oncologist rather than the surgeon first, because the primary doctor didn't know what he was dealing with. I could have been angry but I was too frickin scared. I cried mostly because there was no avoiding why I was there. I had to acknowledge I was now a member of “The Club That Nobody Wants To Join.”
But that was a long time ago. And, honestly my attitude has changed.
During the Pandemic I found the Oncologist’s strangely restful. Everybody in there had already considered their mortality. It was not a surprise. And in lockdown, people in real life had sort of had to hide themselves away like chemo patients - without the discomfort of actual chemo - which had a sort of camaraderie to it. So, while on the outside world people were losing their shit, in the Oncologist's office everything felt pretty much like business as usual.
Every time I visit, I want to say to the women who come in crying like I first did, that the time where they were definitely going to die is over. Now they have an even chance. The scariest dance with cancer is when you don’t know you have it. Knowing it feels worse, because everyone gets scared, but actually it’s the beginning of the solution. But I shut my face. They’re on their own journey and already have more than enough people with opinions in there.
Generally with those of us in past or current membership of The Club That Nobody Wants To Join, there’s an acceptance that not everything really is within your control and it's a good idea to come to terms with that.
Outside people might talk about ‘the battle' or ‘the brave fight’. Inside people tend to be just getting on with it, because they understand the possibilities and they're not ready to die.
My disease is now classified as ‘stable’ (oncologists don't really do ‘cured’) which means that I am mind-blowingly lucky, and also that though I used to visit the oncologist every three months for blood work, now I've graduated to four.
Beside me in the waiting room, a figure bundled in a hoodie and pajamas lies almost lifeless over a bank of chairs. The man on the other side coughs behind his mask like his chest might explode. But in the chairs opposite, two women with headscarves chat animatedly about kids and birthdays and what they might be planning for Halloween.
I'm friendly with the staff there, and one of the bosses who once upon a time held my hand while I sobbed uncontrollably because I was in pain and terrified, saw me as I headed into an exam room.
‘Hey,’ he called out.
‘Oh hi,’ I said.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Oh, you know me. I like to be where it’s happening.”
“You look great.” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. “You too.”
“Honestly, you look kinda like you don't really belong here.”
He smiled. I smiled too. A moment of unspoken understanding.
“Thank you,” I said again. “For everything.”
He nodded. “Meh,” he said, and headed off.
The blood work looked good. I agree to come back again in 4 months, though soon we’ll make it 5.
Back in the waiting room, the figure lying on the chairs has disappeared. In her place sits a tearful young woman, a small boy beside her playing with a toy truck and a mini Spiderman. I am mindful to keep out of their business. I don't need to know which one has joined the club.
I wave goodbye to my friend on reception. She wishes me Happy Holidays knowing I won’t be back till after New Year.
And I am good. Occasionally I might find myself crying in a grocery store because of a song they’re playing. Or I freeze when I think of someone who made me laugh and I suddenly remember they’re no longer here. Or I notice my reflection in the mirror of some restaurant bathroom and I can't bear to look at the person I see. They tell me it’s a form of survivor’s guilt and it will ease.
From time to time I sit myself down and I have a cup of tea and remind myself that I’m a big grown adult, and that part of being a big grown adult is having to deal with stuff you don’t fucking like. And I get over myself.
There is a club. Nobody wants to join it. And Nobody gets the choice. But if you're lucky - very very lucky - you get to put your membership on hold. That’s a good thing to remember. Always. It helps to keep priorities in place.
Till next week
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