This morning Jaimie asked me to help her carry boxes of school supplies out to her car.
I said, “What about my cancer?”
She shook her head and handed me boxes.
The doctor who first broke the news to us was my surgeon. It was ten days after I got out of the hospital. I went in to get my staples taken out and to get the results of the biopsy. She made small talk with my parents, Jaimie, and I, and as she finished with my staples we got down to brass tacks.
Kind of. She said:
Surgeon: So I’m sure we all want to talk about the elephant in the room.
Me: Yeah that would be great.
Surgeon: Before we get to the results, I just want you to know that life is…look, anyone of us could get hit by a car today and that would be that. It’s not about how much time we have, it’s about what we do with the time we have.
Me: So I have cancer?
Surgeon: Yes you have cancer
End of play.
It was actually a very effective way to be told. She seemed pretty upset as she broke the news to us and that automatically put me into caretaker mode. I was like, “No, it’s fine. I didn’t really like being alive that much anyway!”
I thought about that moment on Wednesday before Melissa came into the room with the results from the first round of scans. I just kept thinking about that my surgeon said: it’s not how much time, it’s what we do with it. It’s not how much time, it’s what we do with it.
And I could be forgiven for thinking the worst. The last time we got news from a doctor it was that my cancer was actually Stage 4. Stage 4!? What is stage 5- heaven? When they told it was Stage 4 they said at that point they focus more on containment rather than cure. At the time that was really scary news. I want a cure. I want to do this thing for six months and then go right back to whatever my normal life was. Not thinking about time. Not thinking about the fleeting nature of life.
When Melissa told us that the treatment was going well, we revisited this cure vs. containment question. She explained to us that yes, sometimes cancer does go away, and sometimes you just have to hold it at bay. Contain it, for long periods of time. Learn to live with it, I guess.
The question all of us really want to know is, “How much time do I have?” That is the subtext of every medical question. How am I? Am I ok? How much longer do I have.
But that’s the one question none of us can answer. We don’t know how much time we have. All that matters is how we feel today. What we do today.
Containment is all any of us can hope for. There is no cure for life. Or taking boxes to your girlfriend’s car. I’m starting to be ok with that.