“How does one say thank-you”, I asked my surgeon, Dr. Bernardini, at the post-surgery appointment today at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto.
I wished so dearly that he could see the words and emotions that were so firmly stuffed into that rhetorical question. It was “he” who had agreed to do surgery on me in an attempt to rid me of my tumors. It was “he” who turned the liver, spleen, abdominal cavity, diaphragm, ovaries, tubes, and uterus operation from “extremely complicated” into a “cake-walk”. It was he who had moved my family and I from seemed to be a “death sentence” of a prognosis in September to a “life-sentence” of a prognosis in March. Did he/could he possibly understand how this had changed everything for us? Could a simple thank-you communicate that which was impossible to communicate?
He simply and graciously replied, “that statement is thanks enough”, and shook my hand. It was an exchange that was so brief – yet so meaningful. No words could speak the volume of emotion that I felt at that moment. He had put my life – our lives – into focus.
All the way home, I replayed the answer he gave to Kevin’s question. “What happens next? Will there be more follow-ups?”
I think Kevin and I had always know that just because the cancer was “gone” now – didn’t mean it would be gone forever. Afterall, the chemo is living proof that rogue ovarian cancer cells are likely to have survived. To hear a professional affirm that my cancer is a chronic condition, however, is an entirely different story. It could have been devastating – but it wasn’t. It could have caused me to give up all hope – but it didn’t. It could have reduced me to tears – but it didn’t.
“Well. You can take one of three approaches to your cancer. You can decide that you don’t want to do anything about it if it returns – and remember it is quite likely to return some day. But that is like the equivalent of burying your head in the sand. To me, that just doesn’t make sense. On the other hand, you can be hyper-vigilant and pay attention to every sign and symptom that looks or feels even remotely off. You may, then, be forever stressing about your health and not living your life. I prefer the more middle-ground. Pay attention to a few of the more “tried and true” markers – like the CA-125 levels, for example. Have them tested every three months. They may fluctuate from time to time – but look at them more globally. If it is clear they are rising – then investigate further. If a pain goes away – don’t worry about it. If a pain is consistent – then investigate further. You need to not be anxious about your health. Stress will not help. But don’t neglect your health either. You will find that the most difficult time you will encounter is when all of this final round of chemo is finished. You will be “cancer-free” – at least to the naked eye. You may feel lost – wonder what is next. (Wait for the other shoe to fall?) It is then, when you need to make some decisions about your approach to follow-up.”
When he was finished, I think I sat in stunned silence. Nothing was new. Nothing was unreasonable. Nothing was surprising. It was just life. Bernardini had just coached me on life. What I heard filled me with peace and calm. It just made sense. Cancer had come into my life (into our lives) and shaken me awake. It had made us give pause to reason and contemplation about the “big” questions – and answers. His manner had been so reassuring. There were no airs – he was not in a hurry to finish and leave. He knew what he was saying was deep and needed sober second thought. That life lesson was the best lesson that Kevin and I could have ever shared. And although not new or surprising – it needed to be reviewed.
“Do you have any other questions?” he asked of Kevin and I as our appointment drew to a close.
“No”, I replied, once again realizing that that “one word” painted a landscape of closure for us all. It was time to move on.
We gathered our things – organized some administrative things including my genetic testing information package – and stood up to leave.
“How does one say thank-you, Dr. Bernardini?”
“You just did”, he replied, smiled, and turned to walk out the door.
“I write a blog, Doctor”, I hurried to announce. I scribbled the address on a scrap of paper and gave it to him. “If you have time, I’d like you to read it. I intend to write about today – when I get home. Maybe you will be able to see through my story, the positive impact you have made on our lives? That will be my “thanks” to you.”
“I am on holidays next week – I will enjoy reading it. Thank-you.”
And with that – he left the room.
Kevin reached out for my hand and together we walked away from Dr. Bernardini’s office and Princess Margaret Hospital. “We’ll have a lot to debrief about in the car, Kevin”, I stated. Kevin smiled and put his arm around me. I knew if I were to live out this life sentence – there was no other person than him with whom I wanted to “spend” my time.