Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  July 2016 | issue 487

Chemo and Me

by E.C. Salibian

E.C. Salibian is a nonfiction writer who lives in Rochester, New York, with two cats named Gadu Meg and Gadu Yergoo. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, she is at work on a memoir about her zestfully unassimilated Armenian American family.

I’m convinced the most accurate way to gauge your survival odds when you have cancer is not by the size, type, or grade of the tumor but by the size and splendor of the tropical-fish tank in your doctor’s waiting room. If it’s over thirty gallons and stocked with anything neon, you’d better start wondering why they want you so calm.

When I went in for a mammogram to investigate a lump, a fish tank as big as a coffin stood gurgling in the middle of the waiting room. In it, lemon-yellow and cobalt-blue fish darted around spiky faux coral. Near the tank sat women who, like me, had changed into front-tying hospital gowns. Two older women chatted about winters in Florida. A young mother called home with instructions for dinner. In one corner a flat-screen TV looped a show about home makeovers.

I was forty-nine years old. A few months prior I’d felt something in my left breast, a squishy mass like an overripe grape sloshing in its skin. But when I searched for it again, I couldn’t find it. This went on for several weeks. Each time I couldn’t locate the mass, it seemed excuse enough for me to thrust fear out of my mind. My strategy was the same one I used with my neighbor’s obnoxious dog: no eye contact, no sudden movements, and if it ran up barking, just ignore it.

After two rounds of X-rays the technician told me the doctor wanted to do an ultrasound and led me to an exam room. I leaned back on the table and told myself not to worry. Dr. Z. came in, confident and calm, like the airline pilot who drawls about “a bit of turbulence” as soda cans rattle on the beverage cart. She smeared a cool gel on my left breast and ran the ultrasound wand over it. A grainy black-and-white image moved on the monitor in time with the wand crossing my chest. Then Dr. Z. held steady over what appeared to be a black clump. It looked hairy, like something you’d pull out of a bathtub drain. The exam-table paper crinkled under me as I shifted to get a better view.

I knew it was cancer.

Dr. Z. all but confirmed my fear, saying she was 95 percent sure as she pressed the pads of her fingers into the side of my left breast. “It’s odd,” she said. “I feel something for a moment, and then it slips away. We’ll need a biopsy to confirm.”

She told me she could do the biopsy right away, or I could make an appointment for another day.

“Now,” I said. Why delay?

Dr. Z. injected an anesthetic into my breast, then used a handheld device to punch out five tissue samples. Anesthetic or no, I could feel each bite. After she’d finished, the assistant walked me to a consultation room.

Against one wall stood a table covered with pamphlets and books about cancer. This is the room most people don’t see, I thought. Dr. Z. entered and showed me the X-rays. It scared me to look at the tumor, as if seeing it made it more real.

“You’ll get through this,” Dr. Z. said.

Her eyes filled with tears. This could probably be considered unprofessional of her, but I was grateful for the human response. Dr. Z. talked about surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation while I noticed that the pamphlets on the table were of the same trifold design as the takeout menus at my local pizza joint.

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