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What It's Like Being on the Other Side of the Phone Call About Cancer

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“I just want to know. I can handle it, whatever the outcome. I just want to know. The waiting is the hardest part.”

Once my biopsy was taken, I must have said these words to everyone I spoke with. I thought with certainty that if only I had the answer, if only I knew what the test results were, then somehow everything would be OK. If I only knew my fate, then I would somehow be in control.

My wait was unusually long. It was summer, so the normal wait time for biopsy results was coupled with my doctor’s beach vacation. It was an epic exercise in peace and patience.

From 1:09 p.m. on June 9 until 11:43 a.m. on June 20 I was a walking, talking version of Schrödinger’s cat. Might be, might not be. All I desperately wanted was to be on the other side of the phone call. I was sure that no matter what the doctor said, I would be totally fine, knowing I finally had an answer.

The wait was brutal.

The call finally came and while I certainly didn’t like the answer, at least I had one. I knew. My life was now all encompassed by the 99 percent certainty of eight, pap-stained direct smears interpreted by a pathologist. I knew I was facing thyroid cancer. I had an answer, but to my dismay, I didn’t feel any better.

While technically my wait for results was over, I was now faced with an entirely new wait; an entirely new sense of uncertainty. There I sat on the other side of the call I so desperately wanted, and yet I felt less certain, less secure, and less at peace.

Suddenly, ignorance really was bliss!

I remember during the days of waiting for biopsy results, having a sense of self-control, being able to limit my wandering brain. Since I did not have any definitive information, I was able to keep myself from an unhelpful trip down a scary rabbit hole of “what-ifs.” However, once I knew I had cancer, I was completely unable to keep myself from a dizzying head-first spiral into anxious uncertainty.

What if he gave me the wrong results? What if this is all a laboratory mistake? What if my surgeon doesn’t think I’m a nice person? What if he damages my voice box during surgery? How will I be able to tell my children that I love them? I cannot live not being able to talk to my children. What if surgery is not enough? What if it’s in my lymph nodes?

I was on the other side of the phone call, where I desperately wanted to be, and yet I was still waiting. I was waiting to no longer feel afraid. I was waiting to get more answers. I was waiting to feel secure. I was waiting to feel like there was solid ground under my feet. That I was no longer tethered to the clouds trying to function like a normal person while dangling from the sky.

I was finally sitting right where I had longed to be and truth is, it still sucked. The wait never really goes away; you just end up waiting for different things.

Control is a falsehood.

I know it’s terribly cliché, but cancer really does change you. Of course, physically I am different, and what was once acute is now chronic, and affects me in a multitude of ways. A new normal for the rest of my life.

Emotionally though, the one thing that is solidified in my mind is the sense of uncertainty. Nothing is certain. There are zero guarantees in life. No one is promised tomorrow.

At some level I’m sure we are all aware of this, but I would argue that most of us prefer to ignore it, or at least not think about it too much. Who in their right mind wants to think today is the last day? (Hint: No one.) When faced with cancer, or any life-altering illness, in many ways you are forced to face this reality. Suddenly, you have to find balance living your life within such uncertain circumstances.

How can one be expected to live at peace in such a preciously unstable existence? It’s a true paradox because on one hand it’s an almost unfathomable concept and truly takes my breath away, and yet on the other hand, there is no alternative.

When times are uncertain, I have found it helpful to focus on the things that do make me feel secure; the things that do tether me. Surrounding myself with friends and family, people who I enjoy being around is always helpful. For a while I would find myself staring obsessively at my children, and while it would totally creep them out, it made me laugh and that’s all that mattered.

Laughter is important. When times are uncertain, find ways to laugh. Surround yourself with humor. Today, I do more of what makes me happy and less of what people think I should do.

I’ve given up on perfectionism, especially when it comes to me. When faced with fearful, uncertain times, it’s possible to make mistakes along the way. I know for sure if there were real take-backs, I owe a few. Self-forgiveness is so important. The universe knows how human we are and eventually we all breakdown during a shit show.

Mistakes happen, but so does self-forgiveness.

Life offers an unsettling lack of permanence. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be beautiful and peaceful. I thought certainty would come with a phone call and was wrong. The scary truth is, I never had certainty in the first place.

We can rail against it, hammering away trying to create a sense of certainty, or we can embrace the uncertainty and instead search for peace and joy in each day that we do have.

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Getty Images photo via oatawa

Originally published: December 20, 2017
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