“Something wicked this way comes.”
“In these matters the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”–Pliny the Elder
While I don’t think old Pliny was talking about medicine when he wrote that, but he just as well could have been. The truth of that statement became evident to me when, after we got back from Joanie’s December appointment, we got called to tell us they wanted to see her again in January.
The news that we would have to return to see Dr. Carson in Minneapolis in January rather than late March or early April, as we had planned on, put something of a damper on the Christmas of 1997. Not altogether, but at times it would manifest itself when I would see Joanie lying on the couch, staring at the TV, knowing that she wasn’t really watching what was on, but with a look in her eyes that told me she was somewhere else, somewhere I couldn’t yet go, and so I would let her be in her reverie. While it hurt to see her like that, I had learned to wait for her to invite me in instead of trying to barge into her very private place. Those moments were some of the times when I felt closest to her.
What concerned us now, was why they wanted to see her so soon after the December appointment and exam. From what we knew, her squamous cell cancer antigen, the tumor marker, was in the normal range when they checked it at the December appointment, but there was something else they were concerned with, and it was something they didn’t mention to us. I had learned over the first year of going through this with Joanie that things were not always what they seemed, and doctors, at times are not sure exactly what is going on either, so they tell you just what they know, and leave you wondering. They, of course, were also wondering, and that was why we were going back down in January. I began to have a bad feeling, but it was one I kept to myself.
While the thought of cancer was an unwelcome guest in our house the Christmas of 1997, it was a guest that was kept out of sight as best we could. We went about the usual tree trimming, house decorating, party going and living through the holidays as if life at 1205 N. Mandan St. was as normal as ever could be.
It had become my job to make her candy, which at Christmas had become a tradition. At first I would just help her out, then it became my job alone. It was a candy she made from almond bark, chocolate chips, peanut butter and lightly salted, dry roasted peanuts. It was a labor intensive process, and since her list of people who would get a box of her candy had grown over the years, and every year more were added, time consuming as well. I didn’t mind since I loved the stuff and would make extra that I would keep in the refrigerator to handle my own chocolate cravings. Surprisingly, Joanie didn’t eat them very often. Her main sweet treat was always a package of Twizzlers nearby, not chocolate.
It would be several weeks before the appointment in January, and after the holidays were over, Joanie went back to work, and we did our best to not let cancer be the focus of our lives. Then as we prepared to leave on the 19th for her appointment on the 20th, as before, things slowed down. When she was facing the uncertainty of another appointment, especially one that was coming so soon after her last one, it made the pressure more evident. The morning we would leave, as before it was as if by stalling as long as she could, somehow, magically she wouldn’t have to go. I would tell her, as I did many times before, we didn’t have any appointments that day and she could take her time. We would get there when we got there.
Finally ready, she would call for Peaches and Muffin and give them treats and pats on their heads before saying good bye and we would be down the road. After a stop at Mabel Murphy’s in Fergus Falls, it was on to Minneapolis and dinner with Ginny and Ed.
We went to Dr. Carson’s office the next day, and after a physical exam, she ordered an abdominal pelvic CT scan. Back in her office later, Carson told us the scan revealed a low density mass to the left of her cervix. As alarming as this was to us, she told us they weren’t sure if it was something caused by the radiation, or if it was cancer that had come back. She told us they wanted to do an examination under anesthesia and take some biopsies of the tissue in question. It would be outpatient surgery. That bad feeling I had earlier came back. If Joanie had a bad feeling she kept it to herself, even though I knew she was thinking about what they might find.
The next day we showed up at the hospital at the appointed time, and after the admittance process was done we were taken to the pre op. It was the same place we had been when she had the surgery in May of 1996. This time, however, the procedure would not take near as long, and after it was over we could leave the hospital, which made Joanie very happy, considering she was really nervous now.
The procedure in the pre op was much the same as it had been before. We met the anesthesiologist, and he told us what was going to happen. Then comes the nurse anesthetist who will be involved and she tells us what her role will be. Dr. Carson comes in and goes over the whole thing again, and then, all things being ready, they call for the nurse with the Versed. They give her a shot of that through the IV, and shortly she is relaxed and they are wheeling her off to the operating room. I’m off for a quick smoke and then to the waiting room to hear from Dr. Carson when they are finished.
Sitting in a surgery waiting room with other worried people is something I never got used to. I waited, doing a crossword, and every time the door opened, my head, like all others there would look up to see if it was the doctor who was taking care of their loved one coming out to give them news.
It wasn’t long before the door opened, and Dr. Carson came out to talk to me. We went to an ante room off the main area, and she told me it appeared the cancer had come back. The air went out of the room. She knew it was having an affect on me, and while we talked I asked her what stage it was. She told me that once it comes back they don’t call a stage, it is just called recurrent cancer. She then mentioned something to me that I totally missed upon reflection later, and that was something about cleaning out her pelvis. I took that to mean they were going to do a hysterectomy, and didn’t pursue it any further.
I went to see Joanie after she got out of recovery, and she knew the news was bad. We both just looked at each other and didn’t say a word. Neither one of us could believe this was happening. This news was the biggest disappointment in a string of them over the last 19 months.
Carson told us to come back to the clinic on the 3rd of February and we would go over what the options she would face now. Joanie got dressed, and we left the hospital and took a slow walk over to Sally’s. We didn’t go for a celebratory glass of wine this time. Just a glass to sip on while we both took a deep breath, looked at each other and asked the same question we had asked on May 7th, 1996, a day that seemed so long ago now, and that was what do we do now?
We didn’t know. Again the feeling of helplessness. We had absolutely no idea of what was in store for her. The only thing we knew for sure, was that the cancer was back, and that wasn’t a good thing.
Since we both agreed there was nothing we could do about it right then, she smiled at me, her bright, blue eyes shining, and suggested we have another glass of wine. We did. At that moment, as I sat across the table from her, I knew why I loved her more than ever.