“So, in reviewing your risks factors it calculates a 40+% chance of reoccurrence.” I sigh audibly as my new oncologist enters data, my data, into a computer keyboard. My mind is reluctant to register the exact number he uttered.
Each follow- up visit has come to be its own separate reality, a safe distance from the flow of my every day life. I am not certain who this Mary is that sits facing her handsome new doctor, straightening her shirt and crossing her ankles. She is so composed and articulate. Ah, yes, this is nurse Mary not Mary the mom, wife, friend and daughter. This is the Mary that I spent years training to be as a nurse; logical, reasonable and purposeful.
It is as if I am working and we are discussing a patient’s record. Yes, that is exactly how I cope with these potentially stressful visits. I nod, lean in and watch his fingers continue to press the keyboard like a composer.
As my doctor thoroughly reviews my questionnaire, which includes lifestyle habits and past medical history, I cannot help but admire his perfectly combed hair or his designer outfit, especially the strategically angled bow tie.
He looks like a character out of a medical drama. ‘Is this man for real?’ His appearance does serve both as a pleasant distraction from this uncomfortable topic and as a reminder that I am not getting any younger. ‘Is he a decade younger than me? He might be almost…wow.’
“So, I see you had no radiation. Is that true?” I sense disappointment. I nod, my last doctor was low key and I admired her for that. This doctor, I could immediately sense, was on the other end of the continuum. I have worked long enough in this field to know a type A, cross your t’s and dot your i’s physician and he was definitely one of them.
“It also states you have an allergy to Tamoxifen?” This comment surprises me. I do not. I had tried it and it stressed me out given the potential risk of taking it so I stopped. My prior physician was unimpressed with the possible benefits it would give me. ‘Did she document it as an allergy?’
“Is it necessary for me to make that decision right now? It was caught so early and…” my eyes dart side to side as I repeat my go to mantra to ease my nerves when I feel the anxiety begin to nudge in. I know the deal. I know the gamble. “Honestly, I feel like taking it is like a life insurance policy. How valuable is it truly and at what cost to my well being?”
He has heard this all before, “Yes, that is exactly what it is. You don’t have to decide this moment. You do know the statistics….” muffled pronunciations ensue and I find comfort in appreciating the window behind him that allows the sunlight to beam into the examination room. It illuminates the side of his face. I consider this more than the rehearsed dialogue he is repeating.
‘Soon, I will be out of here and be able to enjoy this beautiful day’, I counter in my mind.
‘Note to self: review the most current research findings as soon as possible.’ In the days ahead, when I find a quiet moment, I do just that.
“So, as far as lifestyle risks. Wine. How much do you typically drink?”
Ahhh, yes the generous pour of my favorite dry rose or pinot in my my chilled stemless glass after a long, stressful day. Often enough I have found this as my go to stress reliever as well as a staple when socializing. I drink responsibly but more often than not in these circumstances, wine is consumed.
I scrunch my face and look down at my fingers, “One to three nights a week and when I am out on the weekends. A glass, generally one to three depending on…” I trail off. I blush.
He proceeds to sternly warn me of this all to common habit, this socially acceptable and more often than not, reasonable habit. How many pictures populate your social media stream of a much appreciated drink? Countless.
He stares me straight in the eye, there is no chance I can avert my gaze to the window now, “The research is clear on this. More than one or at most two glasses of alcohol a week could increase further your chance of reoccurrence by double digits. I know it seems safe enough but the argument that wine is good for you does NOT apply now. Heart disease won’t be what gets you, breast cancer is…if you continue this habit.”
It seems harsh, but there is a small part of me that is grateful for his unabashed honesty. “There really is no compromise here,” he adds.
He allows a few moments of silence, when a voice comes from somewhere, deep within me, “I understand. O.K.” And, this time I do and I know in that moment I am answering to both myself and him.
I leave his office grateful that he cared enough to scare sense into me.
A lifestyle change can certainly bring with it unexpected obstacles and emotions. In these few months since this visit, I have had more than I can count. I made a commitment to myself and to those that care for me, but it did not not come with instructions. I have been navigating this lifestyle choice blindly, although to my core I know this is as it should be.
I am still awkward when ordering a plain iced tea while at a bar (more a question than a statement) or when I regard blankly the leftover wine bottle in my fridge that has not been moved since this visit. Should I just throw it out? Save it for company? I am so awkward for valid reason. I am relearning how to socialize and decompress without my favorite glass of wine.
Just recently, I was casually scrolling my Facebook feed and I discovered a posting by “Sexy Sobriety”. ‘Hmmm, you got my attention.’ I read the post and it resonated within me. It included a reference for a book, “A Happier Hour,” one woman’s recount of making the same lifestyle change for her own reasons. I quickly searched amazon and purchased the book. It could not come fast enough.
I read her book in one day on a long ride to our family’s vacation destination. I am still in awe that life brought this book into my life just when I needed it. Her honestly, sincerity and vulnerability inspired me to remain steadfast in my journey. While I continue to question more than answer at this stage, I discover myself less and less daunted by the nature of the questions and more and more encouraged by the answers.