Apology from a Bridge

by Ruth ArnoldPatient, Metastatic Breast CancerNovember 9, 2021View more posts from Ruth Arnold

I glanced at the text. The words “liver”, “enzyme” and “scans” popped out at me, and I wondered what they meant. In a nanosecond I thought back to my Thursday blood draw where my oncologist told me that my liver enzyme results had not come back yet. In the same nanosecond, I assumed and made up that this text was negative about my liver enzyme results and that I now had to go in for extra scans. In that time of less than a quick intake of breath, I had decided that this was a scary text about my bloodwork from my oncologist. Who else uses these terms?

I waited another split second and read the entire text. It was from a woman I speak to on the phone who lives in Virginia. I live in Illinois. We got connected since I take phone calls here and there for a pharmaceutical company for a drug they make for metastatic breast cancer patients. She and I got connected and somehow became oddly metastatic breast cancer (MBC) friends.

When you find somebody who not only is living with the very same thing you are living with but who shares the same fears and hopes and worries, it is delicious. It is something not easily found and something you wish to hang on to. It is like a love. And with this woman whom I had never met, I found this, and we became familiar quickly. I assumed the role of being ahead of her in the timeline of living with cancer and usually served to comfort and share thoughts. We just understood each other readily. Our MBC brought us together, but we were also developing a camaraderie.

So the text was from her. She was the one with the odd liver enzyme results from a blood test. Not me. She was the one going in for extra scans because of the funky liver enzyme results. Not me. And in spite of my love for her, I exhaled and breathed and celebrated that it was not my bad news.

I had quickly re-engaged that always-waiting fear of imminent death, that I managed to keep at bay day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. It is always waiting to spring, and in that moment it was unleashed. I felt it, and it started to take me into the pit of fear. The pit of death. But I quickly removed it and gladly let that fear move to another person on the planet. A person I care about and a person I share the same fears with. In spite of my caring for her, I selfishly, and in a cowardly manner, celebrated my temporary reprieve.

Within a moment, I became strong and back to my old self that could deny the potential for death coming for me sooner than it would for most people. I could laugh again and talk again, and for her, I could be the calm one. I could tell her that my scary moment of a scan that was misread, led me to a very similar place. I told her not to try to understand or figure this out but that she simply had to wait. As I told her this, I knew that this was an impossible request to make of anybody. Could you please wait until we get the information on whether you’re about to die or not? Until we do this test for you, can you just go to work, eat, love, watch TV, read, shower? Could you please?

I had been where she was. I had been her. I hoped that her news would be what mine was. I hoped that somebody misread something, or that something was not a big deal that appeared to be a big deal.

You see, we walk on these bridges between our scans. They are swaying paths of time that extend between tests and scans and blood draws and appointments and pills and injections and results and consultations and trying to understand but to then forget so that we can go back to living…. on our current bridge. We are always waiting for our next thing that will tell us to return to the denial or fall into the fear waiting on either side of those bridges.

I don’t know if everyone is as selfish as I am. Do they get afraid when they hear of one of their own going down? Do they distance themselves from people who look too sick? Is that just me? Am I so selfish that I still am afraid that if I’m around people who are falling down to this cancer that is trying to claim me, I will become one of them and will also fall? Or are others more noble? Do they understand that being kind and strong is what keeps our community emotionally safe? I thought I understood that. Am I pretending?

To every cancer patient who has metastatic breast cancer whom I might have met who looks sicker than I do and who scared me with their appearance, oh, I am sorry. To every person I have ever spoken to who has asked me for support as they demonstrate more complicated conditions with their cancer than I do and I feel relieved that it’s not me, I am sorry. I am sorry that I feel stronger and healthier when I sit in waiting rooms with you, and I look at you and celebrate that I am not you. I am so sorry. I am so sorry.

Who am I? Am I better than you? Luckier than you? No. I am not. I know it. But you are the truth that I work so hard to avoid. When I laugh, when I watch a movie, when I read, when I worry about smaller matters, you are the truth that I cannot focus on. I cannot focus on my cancer. I cannot live with my attention on my cancer. I tried it. I found life truly unlivable.

My safety is to listen, to understand, to go into the medical world for answers and to then close the door until my next event of evaluation. When I close that door, you, the visibly sick, are left on the other side of that door. You are the truth of my potential future that I cannot embrace, that I cannot attend to, because fully embracing and living in that truth is its own finality. I choose to look away. And without any potential for change in myself to be better, to be stronger, to be more noble, I apologize.

I have to distance myself to save myself. It is selfish. It is unkind. I feel it. I know it. But I cannot change it. You scare me. You are losing to the same beast that I hope to manage, but you remind me that I am in no way doing anything except hoping. You remind me that I am not strong, but like you, just a victim. You remind me that my life is in danger every day, every hour and every second forever. You remind me of death. My death. My death which is perhaps more imminent if I see you.

I’m sorry but I need to return to colors, to laughter, to music, to minutia.

I am so sorry for you. I will likely some day be you, and I will know what it is to be feared. I will know what it is to be literally the embodiment of a terrifying truth. I will know what it is to show the dark future to others who choose to look away. I hope somebody better than I am shows up for me and shows a compassion that I am frightened to search for at this moment.

My bridge sways. I have to hold on. I cannot hold on and ask you to join me. It is too dangerous to share my bridge. I cannot fall. I am sorry.

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This piece originally ran in the September 2021 issue of the Elephants and Tea magazine. Click here to read!

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