Post-cancer gratitude can be elusive.
Many gratitude books and sites populate the world, but I believe gratitude forced is not gratitude, but rather an I’m-eating-my-broccoli exercise, often followed by acute indigestion.
Like most writers, I put a high premium on honesty. But one man’s honesty is another man’s lack of social graces.
You can’t just blunder around telling the truth. If you do, you’ll walk a lonely road.
Because cancer is so traumatic — the experience would qualify as torture under normal circumstances — real gratitude can be rare.
Still, I think it’s worth the effort. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer the day after 9/11, but a few years ago I arbitrarily moved my cancer anniversary to Thanksgiving.
Dr. Steve Buie, my family-practice doctor since 1988, found my cancer within two days of the appearance of symptoms (for me, abdominal pain and bloating). The average for ovarian cancer is three months. Some women go as long as two years with doctors telling them it’s all in their heads, it’s menopause, here are some pain pills, maybe it’s time for a routine hysterectomy.
Within hours of my entrance to the emergency room, Dr. Buie ordered all the right tests. Two days later he came to the hospital to tell me in person that all the doctors, including him, thought I had ovarian cancer.
I remember screaming, “But that’s fatal!”
Dr. Buie replied, “Only in late stages. We tested your liver and kidney function, and we think we caught this early.”
“You can’t let me die,” I pleaded. “It will kill Robert.” I babbled on like that for a while. Finally Dr. Buie walked over, grabbed my hands and said, “Donna, you’re getting way ahead of yourself.”
He came back the next morning to check on me. It was a Sunday, and he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He’s a little younger than me. “Dr. Buie,” I said, “we were supposed to grow old together.”
“That’s still the plan,” he said.
He insisted I see a gynecologic oncologist. Her name was Dr. Verda Hunter, and she did the surgery. I remember waking up and hearing her say, “It’s mostly good.”
I asked the recovery nurse how long my surgery lasted. At first she wouldn’t tell me. She said I would forget. I said, “You don’t know me. I won’t forget.”
“An hour and a half,” she said. That was encouraging, I knew. The surgery of some ovarian cancer patients lasted six hours, nine hours, 14 hours.
Two days later the pathology report arrived. My cancer had spread. I was stage III.
But despite my abysmal survival statistics, my oncologist was optimistic.
She no doubt studied long and hard to become a doctor. One day a radiologist asked me who my oncologist was. “Verda Hunter,” I said. He knew who she was. He’d been in the operating room with her. “She’s not just the best gynecologic oncologist I’ve watched operate,” he said. “She’s the most skilled surgeon I’ve seen, period.” [Ed. note: Patricia Fontaine’s poem Dragonfly Rescue is a valentine to oncologists.]
Dr. Hunter and Dr. Buie: Since my cancer diagnosis, I have seen six summers come and go. I’ve seen six seasons of magnolias and tulips. I expect to see a seventh.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.