Holding Space

With Shelly Vaughn

Diagnosis day

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Diagnosis day (recalling this day from 2017): It’s fascinating to me that words (sound waves that our auditory nerves perceive and interpret) can become so ingrained in our memories that we never forget them. Of course, I remember the day my girls were born and the dr saying “It’s a girl!” I remember when my mom called me in March 2007 and said “Amy’s gone.” And I still remember back in February of 1996 when Rob first said “I think I love you.” I can hear each of those phrases so vividly in my mind. This day last year is when another one was added to the list. “Dr. Fenton wants to see you this afternoon.” And just like that… my. world. stopped.

Remember that earlier in the week I told the doctor that it was ok to call me if they got the biopsy results on Friday. I was at work and missed the call, so there was a message to call Lisa at Dr. Fenton’s office. I honestly thought that it was going to be a quick phone call to tell me I was fine. Then Lisa said those words- “Dr. Fenton wants to see you this afternoon.” My stomach dropped lower than I knew it could. I can’t imagine what my face looked like. I knew what that meant. All I could say was “Ok.” Lisa, this woman who works for the dr office, has an impossible job… and does it so well. She knew that I knew. And simply said “Do you want to know what it is?”
“Invasive, poorly-differentiated ductal carcinoma.”
Ok. Can you say that again so I can write it down? (I couldn’t even process that she was saying “poorly”… i thought she meant “pourly”- which isn’t even a word.) Once I got it written down, she told me to come in at 3:15 to meet with the doctor. She started telling me that I would meet with a nurse navigator who will help me through all of my appointments. I could not even process what she was saying to me, and she knew it. So she told me to call my husband and she would see me in a couple of hours and the doctor would explain everything then.

I hung up and stared at the phone. What just happened? What are these words scratched on this post-it note? That’s not me. That’s not my diagnosis. This isn’t real. What do I do?

I called Rob, shaking, crying, in shock… somehow I guess I told him the news. In a matter of a couple of minutes he knew and was on his way to come to my work. Wait… I’m at work. I have a student coming in today. I have patients to see and work to do. There was only one other person at work that day who knew that I even had a biopsy- Kristen Lautenbach- so I called her and asked her to come to my office. I told her and she hugged me and I cried… a lot. Thankfully, she said she would handle everything at work- she would find the student and make sure she had someone else to go with that day. She would handle canceling my patients. Honestly, I don’t have a clue what else she did… I just know she handled it. She was sitting next to me when I sat at the computer to google these new words that would become part of my vocabulary. And she wisely told me to stop. Her advice, which stuck with me through so much of my experience- “just be a patient”. It was against my initial instinct- I wanted to look this up and learn and analyze and figure it out. I needed to know facts. I needed some numbers. She knew better. She had me close my laptop. And she gave me a hug while I cried until my best friend came to the door.

Rob has always had an amazing ability to keep me calm. Seeing him walk into my space in that time of uncertainty for both of us was a different feeling. I’ve been hugging that man since I was 15 years old. But the hug in that moment carried more meaning than any other embrace we’ve had. It immediately reminded me that we were a team… we would get through whatever was about to happen. I am loved. I am supported. This guy is here to do it with me.

And then, I remembered that I had to call my sister. She knew I was about to return that voicemail to the dr office. She’s been waiting for me to call her back and tell her. She would know the second that she heard my voice. And she did. The conversation was mostly one of disbelief- on both sides. And ended with her saying she was leaving PA then and she’d be in Ohio in a couple of hours.

Rob and I left to go home for those couple of hours until the appointment. Just enough time to get some things taken care of around the house and eat some lunch (though I don’t think I ate anything). Olivia had plans to go to PA for the weekend, which we wanted her to keep. So I packed up her bags so she’d be ready to go. I set out some stuff for dinner, as my friend Carrie King Donnell would come to the house and be here for the girls when they got home from school- she would get them dinner then take them where they needed to be.

Two hours has never gone so fast, nor so slowly, in my entire life. Eventually it was time to go see the doctor- Trisha and Rob were with me in an appointment i’m sure none of us will forget. The nurse navigator came in first and handed me a bag with a pink pillow and breast cancer items and information- it was like a weird goodie bag that I got for having the diagnosis. It was full of random things that I wanted nothing to do with. The doctor eventually came in- straight faced as he read that pathology report out loud. He explained the terminology well and gave me a synopsis of my treatment plan… which included chemo. I had known several people with breast cancer who had surgery and radiation and was so hoping that would be my plan as well. There’s something about the idea of chemo- getting so sick (and looking the part) that is so upsetting. Skipping over some of the details here (because this really isn’t meant to be a novel), we finished up with his appointment and he was able to schedule me to see an oncologist at the same hospital right away. So we got my “breast cancer goodie bag” and headed across the street to meet the person who would save my life.

Dr. Rehmus- my oncologist. I vividly remember meeting her, too. We were sitting at a round table, but she pulled out two of the chairs, faced them toward each other and said “let’s talk.” We sat face-to-face for a few minutes while she gave me the overview of what was about to happen. I’ve heard that when a person experiences trauma, their cognition level typically reverts to about a 4th grade level. After this experience I can say that is definitely true. She was explaining cancer and my pathology in such simple terms so I could understand them… she did it perfectly. She was serious and smart, and I knew I liked her. She’s a no-nonsense kind of doctor and that’s what you need in this kind of experience. She is also extremely knowledgable in research, which I appreciated.

When the appointment was over, Rob picked up Olivia and took her to meet his parents in PA. Trisha and I were at our house- processing what just happened then planning to make the next hardest phone calls- to tell my parents. Let me say that as hard as it is to hear bad news, it’s harder to be the one who has to say it. To know that you’re about to cause heartbreak. To know you’re about to ruin someone’s day. It’s an impossible thing to do. Thank goodness Trisha was here- I made her do the hard part. She broke the news initially, then I talked to them and shared what info I knew. My brother wasn’t home, so I would try to call him again the next day. And that was enough for one night- time to wrap up this terrible day.

Dr. Rehmus had prescribed Ativan for me that night… and it was very helpful. It helped me to fall asleep which my body desperately needed. The next morning, there was a split second when my brain was awake but my eyes weren’t even opened yet, that I hoped it was all a bad dream. And just as quickly as that moment came, it was gone. And I was about to wake up in my new reality- as a cancer patient.

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