Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Faces In The Waiting Room

The doors to the elevator whoosh open, and the familiar scents and sounds of the 11th floor Head & Neck Surgical Oncology ward assault my senses. The piney-sweet smell of hospital cleaning fluids, tinged with something vaguely rotten, make me crinkle my nose.

Next to me a woman about my age lies on a stretcher, her neck swathed in bandages and a large surgical drain dangles out of a hole near her collarbone. I unconsciously finger the small white round scar left from my own drain, many months ago.

I tick back in my head and think: how long ago was that me lying there on a stretcher? A few minutes of pondering and I realize it is one year to the day - to the minute, actually - that I had completed the neck surgery that removed a stubborn lump of what we hoped were dead cancer cells and 23 of my lymph nodes.

I shudder, remembering the crippling fear and pain of those days. Waiting anxiously to hear if they got it all, lying helpless in the hospital moaning in discomfort.

One year. Whoa.

The orderly pushes the woman towards me, and I see soft tears quietly streaming down her cheeks. I yearn to grab her hand and tell her this is the worst part.  But maybe it isn't. Maybe she won't be lucky like I was and they couldn't get all her cancer.  I shoot a silent prayer her way, and turn the corner into the head & neck surgical oncology waiting room.  I'm here for a routine check-up, but my stomach is flip-flopping with butterflies. I haven't been here since Christmas, and have been having odd twinges of pain, some difficulty swallowing and increasing dryness in the back of my throat.  I don't know if this is normal or not.

The waiting room is a stark reminder of the ravages of head &  neck cancer. A man with most of his lower jaw missing writes a note to his wife on a little whiteboard. A woman struggles to speak to the receptionist through the hole in her throat.  All around me are people covered in bandages - over eyes, ears, necks and even entire heads.

I look down at my hands, wishing with all my heart I could be somewhere else.  I read yesterday that Roger Ebert's throat cancer came back, and I'm a nervous wreck.

I've been feeling good lately - physically, emotionally and spiritually.  I'm building my new Arbonne business, alongside my thriving jewelry business, and I wake up with a spring in my step every morning, eager to tackle the day.  If you had shown me a picture of my life today when it was me on that stretcher, I would not have believed what I saw.

I have gained all my weight back, and then some, but am working it down again with exercise, yoga and a 30 day fit kit program from Arbonne.  My veins course with healthy vitamins, supplements and proteins.  I have more energy than I can ever remember having.  I feel like I don't belong here, but I do.  I'm still a Cancer Person.

At the end of my treatment I remember thinking: I can't wait until cancer is firmly in my rear view mirror. Here I am, a year later, and I've learned something: cancer is never truly in your rear view mirror.  It's more like a shadow passenger in the back seat, mostly quiet and I think it may have gone, and then I'll hear a faint cough or shuffling of feet and I'll think:  oh yeah.  Cancer's back there.

I'm finally called into the exam room, and the doctor cheerfully asks me how I'm doing. My feet swing madly back and forth as he peers down into my throat, feels around with his gloved fingers, and mutters things like hmmmmm.

Hmmmmm is officially my least favorite sound.

I'm too scared to ask what he sees, and silently let him complete his exam.  He scribbles notes in my folder for what seems like ages, then snaps it shut and turns to me with a smile and says looks good!

A follow-up appointment that will include a CT Scan is scheduled for the end of May.

I rush out of the hospital and into the fresh spring air, feeling like a prisoner on a 10 week reprieve.

Driving home, I think of the faces in the waiting room, wondering what news they are getting today.  I realize I'm always going to be a face in that waiting room - my doctor says he'll follow-up with me "until he retires". He's in his late 40s.

I turn up the radio, roll down the windows and sing along as I drive down the highway.  Cancer settles into the back seat, hunkers down and goes quiet. At least for now.  


  1. Really beautiful, Ellie. Sometimes empathy is excruciatingly painful, and sometimes it's too beautiful to keep inside. Thank you for reminding us to welcome the empathy with all of its side effects.

  2. Here's hoping it stays quiet back there!

  3. I'm a cancer person too so I get this so much! Let's hope it stays in the back seat.

  4. You took something so horrifying and made it both less and more so with your beautiful words. You painted a picture of fear that was so real I felt I was there with you. I felt your hope and desire to ease the discomfort of the lady on the stretcher, and that was beautiful.
    This was a fantastic piece.
    I wish you many more years without the Big C!

  5. I'm shooting silent players your way, just as you did for the woman on the stretcher. :)

  6. I loved your gripping storytelling here and felt I was there with you. Congratulations on the reprieve.

  7. You nailed it, Ellie... I had my three and a half year check with my ENT last week, and, you know, that shadow passenger is still riding along in the car and there's still that suspended-in-time moment of silent anticipation between the time my ENT puts his finger down my throat, pokes around, feels my neck, and I finally hear those words... "it looks really good...I'll see you again in 6 months." And there's always a little new hardly noticeable pain in the side of my neck or slightly different sore throat that is just enough to keep me a little on edge between appointments,
    compounded by the news stories of celebrities relapsing/dying after years of being cancer free. It's heartbreaking to see and hear of those not so fortunate. Thanks for helping me remember I am not traveling this journey alone with that silent nemesis back there - there's encouraging voices, like yours, riding along in the car as well! That makes all the difference.